Saturday, February 20, 2010

Pyramid Power

An entry in the Knight Digital Media Center's Online Journalism Review by Benjamin Davis proposes an intriguing way to think about news presentations, something he calls the digital media pyramid. Significantly, it's shaped like a standard pyramid because it's meant to update the traditional news formulation known as the inverted pyramid.

In the inverted pyramid, the width is a metaphor for importance -- wider at the top means more important, narrowing as it goes down to less-important material. In the digital media pyramid I'm guessing the width is a metaphor for breadth of the presentation, or perhaps the number of elements or individuals contributing to it? (I presume the width is a metaphor for something, otherwise what's the point of the visual representation. I'd welcome clarification on this.)

As Davis puts it:

"The basic premise of the Inverted Pyramid remains sound, but the device desperately needs to be adjusted for the fast-moving digital world. ... The 'Digital Media Pyramid' does not replace the analog-based Inverted Pyramid. It simply enhances it by bringing it into a 21st century digitally dominated information universe."

Mostly it adds a number of considerations to the mix that journalists need to account for in an online environment, including cut-and-pasted and linked material; artwork and ads (often auto-generated ones that appear almost seamlessly with the text); and the ways in which reader content and sharing through social networks and other resources extend the presentation.

At the risk of sounding like a fan for reductionism, I like models such as this that sum things up with a visual shorthand for something that has a lot of moving parts. So I was intrigued to read about it and think it might offer a useful frame for talking about the differences between digital and traditional storytelling. I highly recommend checking out Davis' entry for much more explanation and detail than I have offered.

An also-interesting postscript was added by digital journalist Mark Luckie, who blogs about online and digital journalism at 10000 Words. In a comment on Davis' entry, Luckie points out that

If the digital age has taught us anything it is that storytelling is no longer linear. A pyramid, whether it is inverted or "digital," is still linear.

(His comment brought to mind another Web site with some other visual depictions I recently used in a lesson about nonlinear storytelling, Mazzba Productions' summary on Web Content Design.)

While I certainly understand Luckie's point and, and I am intrigued by Davis' thoughts, I want to offer a humble (and very brief) defense of linear thinking and the traditional IP construction.

Certainly, news presentations at the macro-level are nonlinear. But most of them always have been, even in print newspapers. As I love to tell my students, I usually start with the comics and sports and double back to the "A" section of hard news only when I'm on my second cup of coffee. Few, if any, people read the paper from page 1A to the final page in order, starting every page at the upper left and going through to the end. Random access is the rule.

A key difference, of course -- and what Luckie really means -- is that non-linearity is now the rule at the individual story level, as well. Many Internet news presentations consist of several individual parts, and readers may choose to access some, all, or just one of them, and readers who do look at several of them can choose the order of reviewing them. Journalists who don't account for this take the risk of creating weak presentations that confuse their readers.

But below a certain level of granularity in the presentation, the information MUST be presented and processed linearly. A text block, even if it's only 200 words, isn't read by looking at the sixth paragraph first, then the fourth, before doubling back to the lead. It's read in order. A video, even a short one, or a narrated slide show, runs from beginning to end as the producer put it together. We haven't become completely disattached from our linear storytelling roots when it comes to the components that comprise the overall presentation, even for non-linear presentations.

And in my classes I still teach the inverted pyramid as something more than the historical curiosity that Davis frames it as. It's still a simple device for organizing the facts of a story, especially for breaking news on the Web, and powerful in that simplicity.

If there's one fact that stands out from nearly every reading on Web usability, it is that on-screen reading is slower and more difficult than ink-on-paper, so online readers scan presentations, absorbing short chunks of text best. That seems almost tailor-made to IP presentations, getting the basic ideas and facts up front for the readers. Then, the Digital Pyramid can take over in terms illustrating how the rest of the mix enters in.

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