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Abandon the inverted pyramid. It’s time to rebuild the news.

June 14, 2021 | By Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst – Mobile Groove @peggyanne

Audiences are spending more time than ever consuming content. Still, even an explosion in digital subscriptions couldn’t prevent massive job cuts across the nation’s newsrooms. Any argument that closures hit companies that churned out poor quality journalism or fake news falls flat when looking at the data. Of the 10 newspapers that have earned Pulitzer Prizes for local reporting in the past decade, all but one were impacted by cuts in the last year.

Why is online news in a crisis? There are lots of theories. Many point to the impact of the Google/Facebook duopoly. The two behemoth companies gobble the bulk of ad revenue, leaving scraps for news organizations. Others suggest that the digital media industry itself is to blame. Ethan Zuckerman points to the “original sin” of building the entire Internet around advertising, putting algorithms, not audiences, in control.

New research confirms that media organizations need to do a critical rethink, but not just of the business model. It appears that media organizations are relying on a faulty content-creation and evaluation formula. The good news is that there’s plenty they can do to rethink storytelling to better engage and monetize audiences. 

The findings, part of the Clwstwr Policy Brief project, reveal that audiences prefer “inclusive and reflective” storytelling models that help them understand and navigate their world. This, the research says, “challenges the perceived – and long-established journalistic principle – that the inverted pyramid model of news storytelling is the most efficient way to deliver news.” 

The traditional approach for news — arranging facts in descending order of importance — lacks creativity and flexibility. What’s more, the research says this style alienates younger audiences that crave a “more thoughtful, considered and purposeful approach” to online news. They want it to reflect the reality of their lives, rather than industry norms. 

Media organizations have an opportunity to rethink the way that they report the news. And, with new formats, they can encourage consumers to engage more actively with content. 

Researchers created a series of different prototypes for news storytelling. Each used a linear narrative style and addressed the question of content with a user-focused “what do I need to know?” approach.

Continuing with our series of video interviews, I talk to the lead author of the report, Shirish Kulkarni, an award-winning journalist and researcher. He makes a case for a complete rethink of news storytelling models. He shares the “seven building blocks” that successful news stories have in common. These include a linear narrative, personal context, and transparency about where the information comes from in the first place. 

Kulkarni also walks us through the “narrative accordion,” a prototype model that gets high ranks from readers because it allows them to sort and skim through the key elements of a story on their terms. Finally, he discusses how news organizations can drive meaningful engagement and revenues by harnessing AI to “individualize” content at scale.



Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst of Mobile Groove interviews Shirish Kulkarni, a researcher focused on identifying and prototyping innovative forms of news storytelling.

Peggy Anne Salz: Mainstream journalism is in crisis. Now we may think it’s due to a lack of trust or a lack of interest, but new research suggests people aren’t consuming news because the wrong stories are being told in the wrong way, by the wrong people. Now, new storytelling models, provocative prototypes, new building blocks. 

They may offer the answer and we get the inside track on this and more today on Digital Content Next. I’m your host as always Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst, content marketing consultant, and frequent contributor to DCN. My guest today is an award-winning journalist and researcher, who’s going to share eye-opening results of his latest research project that goes to the core of what is broken in online journalism and how to fix it. Shirish Kulkarni welcome to Digital Content Next. It’s great to have you. 

Shirish Kulkarni: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here. 

Salz: Now you’ve got our attention with these results, the wrong people, doing the wrong thing, in the wrong way. That is something pretty provocative. You spent the last two years asking these fundamental questions about journalism, and now you’ve come up with a construct for a model of what you call reflective journalism. Now it’s not just, you. It’s had global impact. You’ve presented it at Reuters Institute, World Association of News Publishers, and many more. Tell us what is reflective journalism. 

Kulkarni: Yeah. So I think we have…well, I have two reasons really, for calling it reflective journalism. Firstly, I think it’s important that we, as journalists, reflect on what journalism is for, right? What the needs of audience is rather than our organizations. Because that’s something that’s really been missing a lot in journalism. And we need to take the time. We’re in a crisis, as you said, and we need to take the time to stop and think, what are we doing wrong? What could we do better? 

The second reason is that it also is super important that our industry is much more genuinely reflective of society. So, largely, if we’re talking about Western Europe or the U.S., this is a very homogeneous industry. And frankly, it’s driven largely by white, middle class, Metropolitan men, for the most part. And actually, when you think about it, that is a really small proportion of the population. And they don’t reflect, or frankly, understand the experiences, the day to day lives of most people in society. And as journalists, I think it’s our job to reflect what’s going on in society. And I don’t think as an industry, we’re actually structurally prepared to do that. So, two reasons for calling it reflective journalism, because we need to reflect both on the industry and also reflect society. 

Salz: And it’s interesting Shirish because you’re making this point that. We need to reflect, and we’ve done that in a way you could even say we’ve been forced to reflect. Let’s put it that way. So we do know what is broken in principle at the core you’re stating it’s all about new forms of narrative. We need new forms of narrative. This is actually very good news because we know what is broken. We know how to fix it. And this is where your policy brief, your news storytelling, storytelling research hits upon the answer. You propose linear narratives. Now, how does this differ from what we’ve been doing? Because what we’ve been doing is the inverted pyramid style. So what makes linear better? 

Kulkarni: It helps to start by thinking, why do we do the inverted pyramid, right? And actually, the kind of prosaic reason for that is because of the telegraph, the original news wire. But actually, the telegraph, when it was used widely, was expensive and unreliable. So people thought, let’s put all the important stuff right at the top, because then it’s cheaper. And if it drops out, then we haven’t lost too much of the important stuff, we’ve lost some of the boring stuff, right? So, technology has clearly moved on by about six generations since the telegraph. But largely, we are using those same habits and formulas, which come from the telegraph era. So that is strange in and of itself. So that’s why we use the inverted pyramid now. And actually, there’s not really a reason for it anymore. 

When I talk about why writing linear stories is better, or producing stories of whatever kind, whether that’s text or whatever, in a linear format is better, we just go back to what are stories for? And stories are there for a kind of evolutionary, anthropological, there’s a neuroscientific basis for storytelling. They help us navigate the world. If you wanted to bring in kind of modern day techniques, they’re like a virtual reality simulator for the world. That’s what stories teach us. And I’d really recommend a book by Jonathan Gottschall, called “The Storytelling Animal.” And in that, there’s a really beautiful quote, where he says, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” 

And so, we know that to be true, right? But those stories aren’t told in inverted pyramid style. They’re told as a linear narrative. Starting at the beginning and ending at the end. And that is what we’re hardwired for as human beings. But as journalists, if we’re writing in an inverted pyramid style, we’re essentially going against what we’re hardwired for. We’re putting up a barrier between the storytelling and the engagement with a story, from the get go. And that, again, is not logical. It’s not rational. It doesn’t make any sense. 

So actually, just on that kind of linear storytelling, we built a bunch of prototypes. But actually, what I was really interested in testing, for exactly the reasons you’re interested is, what if it was just linear storytelling, there’s no other formatting, would people find that interesting? So we did a prototype, which we just called kind of a plain text, dramatic prototype. And that was literally plain text, writing a story, sort of casting it quite badly, in my own opinion, because I wrote it, in a kind of three act dramatic structure, like we were just talking about. And the results from that were absolutely startling. 

We tested it with more than 1300 people, against options of news which were currently available to them. And what we got the people to do was essentially, say whether they thought that it was more engaging, more informative, and more useful. And we created, I guess, a net approval rating. So on the kind of engaging axis, people have found just a plain text narrative more engaging than a BBC story, or an ITV story, or Sky News story here in the UK. The rating for that was plus 57, not 57%, plus 57, of the positives against the negatives. On informative, it was plus 41. And on useful, plus 37. So those are big, big numbers. And in some ways, you’d say for news organizations, they’re a no brainer, right? If you can, tomorrow, do something which is more engaging, more informative, and useful by big margins, just by essentially changing the structure of your story, why wouldn’t you do that? 

Salz: Now we’ve had some companies here on Digital Content Next, they have been sharing what they’re doing and they are already taking a more modular approach to news and to storytelling. So there are companies moving in this direction. They understand that just by encouraging readers to skim, they’re not really driving engagement. And they have to do it in a different way. They need to break down the stories. How can news organizations further improve what they do to draw their audiences in? What is it that you’re telling them? 

Kulkarni: So the very first thing is clearly thinking about what the audience, what citizens want, right? So when I was writing my prototypes, really, the first thing was to blank my brain. I’d tried to forget all the conventions of journalism, and ask myself the question, what do I actually need to know about this story to help me understand this? Rather than, what would a journalist normally write here? Because those two things are actually surprisingly different. And I think it’s where I think the kind of practice of journalism has become quite disengaged from the purpose of journalism. And as you say, there’s lots of hand wringing over, you know, people in newsrooms looking at analytics, when they are looking at analytics, and probably not enough people are sort of hand wringing over, well, people only spend 10 seconds on our page. Well, kind of, of course, they only spend 10 seconds on your page if you write an inverted pyramid style, where you’ve put in the headline, and in the first paragraph, something that looks like everything you need to know about that story. And then people think, well, actually, it gets more boring, and less interesting as I go down. 

Now, actually, the truth is, it’s not everything you need to know about the story, because we all know, headlines don’t represent a story. They’re largely used as a sales technique. And the first paragraph often is a kind of one side of the story or just a really quick summary. But actually what people are telling us they want routinely, and not just me, in lots of research, they want more context around a story. What we tend to do is drop people into an on the day story, just on the day. And not everyone consumes news in the same way as journalists, right? They don’t read the news necessarily every day or every hour. We need to explain to them what’s led up to this point, and actually to some extent, what’s going to follow from this point. And so, actually providing all those things as a service, because yeah, journalism is a service, again, something which we forget. Then all those things are going to help people engage. 

Salz: News as a service, you’re absolutely right here. And you’re also talking about what news organizations need to do to embrace the linear approach. Fortunately, it’s something they don’t have to do on their own because your research also shows that it’s really about collaborating, co-creating whatever you want to call it with AI to keep reader attention, as the story unfolds. Even determine the best starting points in the news. Ways to draw the audience in. So how does this collaboration working with AI? Look, what is the role of AI to get people to come into the story and stay? 

Kulkarni: Lots of journalism organizations are using AI very well now, already. And so this is going to be the future of journalism. The next stage of journalism will be driven by automation and AI. So we have to be in that space. And I think the starting point is, look, right now online news is largely just newspaper articles put online, right? We’re not using, we’re not taking advantage of all the digital and technical storytelling tools that are available to us. 

And I think what we’re seeing is that we should be in a post-article world, right? We can’t provide, or we shouldn’t be providing exactly the same article to everyone, right? We can’t be all things to all people. And where that leads to is personalization, essentially. That actually, we can provide news, information, in a way that is personalized to meet individual user’s needs in a really efficient way. So that might be, for example, I’m based in Wales, where we have quite a big immigrant community as well. If I’m a Chinese person living in West Wales, accessing BBC Wales’s news, wouldn’t it be interesting if I could access that in my first language, even though it’s news about Wales? That’s going to be more accessible to me. Working in that modular way, where we’re taking out a lot of interstitial language, we’re building short modules of information, which we’re putting together in different ways for different people. That, for example, takes out a lot of translation problems. It actually takes out a lot of inherent bias that exists within us as journalists. So it’s more accessible and more inclusive in that way. 

So providing fact-based modules of journalism, that can be put together in different ways, by AI, to match the personalization preferences of users, citizens, audiences, has to be one big part of the future of journalism, I think. 

Salz: That’s fascinating Shirish because we did start with personalization in news. It was about the categories asking audiences to choose the categories they wanted. Now it’s about personalization taking that personalization to a next level, a new level. And we agree it’s about the audience. It’s also about context, transparency, diverse perspectives. 

Now these are the guiding principals, but it also comes down to the experience and that’s where your research also offers some answers. You’ve come up with ways to allow a different experience for different readers. The linear story is the concept, but you have accordions, timelines, videos. What can you tell us about the best on-ramp right now for organizations listening in, they want to know what is the best way to make the biggest difference in their stories and their metrics? 

Kulkarni: The narrative accordion is really my favorite prototype. And actually, the favorite generally, with users. And what we’ve done here, essentially I’ve gone back to the basics and asked myself the question, what do I need to know about the story? What’s going to help me understand it? And I put these kind of expandable and collapsible questions, which means that people can either read them from top to bottom, so they make a linear story from top to bottom. Or if you’re interested in a particular question, such as, is this a green solution? I can go straight to that and check out the answer to that first, and navigate around exactly how I want it. Because what audiences really told us they wanted was some agency in storytelling. They wanted to be able to decide how they navigated the story. And we all understand that, don’t we? Like, when we go to find something out ourselves, we remember it better. We understand it better, because we feel like we’ve been part of that investigation process. 

And as I say, the narrative accordion overall, in our testing, did really well. So basically, 75% and upwards, comparing the narrative accordion to options which are available to them in the general market, said it helped them understand the story better, and was more engaging. 

Now, again, going back to the commercial needs or publishers, if you can do tomorrow, this doesn’t take a lot of kind of tooling or engineering, you could do tomorrow, something which more than 75% of people say helps them understand the story better, and is more engaging. Now, that, in a commercial sense, to me, is a no brainer, right? If you can do that tomorrow, why wouldn’t you? 

Salz: That makes perfect sense. Absolutely. It’s a no-brainer and there’s no reason not to pursue that, but you’ve also found something else interesting in your research. You’ve found out that we are hard-wired, literally for the hero story or the heroine story.  We want to have that arc of the story. Now, how can organizations apply that to journalism and still keep a credible balance? Because of course, drama can quickly become melodrama. It can become exaggeration very easily. So how do they approach this to give us the story? But again, also the engagement, because that’s the way of generating revenues. 

Kulkarni: So, I see the tension, I’m all for kind of fact-based journalism, which sometimes, we get into kind of click bait stuff, which is about creating a particular kind of drama, right? When I’m talking about, this kind of hero, heroine story, it’s that fundamental evolutionary need for a particular kind of story, which you might describe as essentially, a fairy tale, is a great example of that. It’s why they’re so popular and successful. And that could be by just thinking about who are the characters in this. We don’t have to go off into kind of writing “non-objective,” but I’m going to put objective in quotation marks there, “non-objective” stories. What’s the sense of character, a resolution as well, because fairy stories always have a resolution. And new stories very rarely have a resolution. And actually, at that evolutionary level stories which don’t have a resolution leave us feeling uncomfortable. 

So actually, that’s where we get into kind of news avoidance, because so much of our storytelling is inverted pyramid storytelling. Leaves us feeling uncomfortable and unresolved. So that’s a really important point as well. 

Salz: So the answers here are context, narrative, linear narrative, AI, imagination, innovation, engagement, but achieving this, internalizing, this can take time, maybe even other talents. So what would you leave us with here? Give me a few steps news organizations can take right now to change the old habit. 

Adopt the new model, adapt the new prototypes that you’re proposing such as the accordion, and also integrate AI more into this process. What can they do that they’re not already doing? 

Kulkarni: When I started doing my research, I think people wanted me to come up with some kind of nonlinear gamified piece of storytelling, innovation, right? And I quickly realized that’s like putting a $100,000 kitchen in a house which doesn’t have a roof, right? We need to sort out the fundamentals. It’s journalism which is broken, and we need to fix that. 

So, that comes down to understanding the user need, the audience need, remembering that journalism is for citizens, it’s for people. It’s not for journalists. So our audiences shouldn’t be other journalists. They should be what people really want from journalism. And so we need to listen to that research, not going with preconceived ideas of what we think journalism should be like in the future. We need to listen to what people actually want from journalism and then action that. And in terms of the storytelling, yeah, I think it’s using personalization, meeting people where they are, meeting their needs. And to do that, we need to leverage AI, essentially. Because to do that at scale, we need to use automation. 

People want that information, they do want to understand the world, they do want to engage with it, but they’re feeling let down by journalism at the moment. So there’s repressed kind of need for that, which we can tap into. And actually, yeah, people are willing to pay for that if they get something which meets their needs. I talk about it in terms of, if you were working at Procter & Gamble or Unilever, and you never listened to your customers needs, you just carried on doing what you’ve always done without thinking about what you need to change, then you wouldn’t work at Procter & Gamble or Unilever for very long. But actually, in journalism, that’s what we do. We just carry on doing the same thing we always did, because we like doing it and we know how to do that. Regardless of the fact, we know people aren’t engaging with it or consuming it. So, there’s a really clear, hardnosed business model for doing storytelling better. 

Salz: Shirish, I can’t thank you enough for sharing and, yes, for being exactly like your research, open, transparent, a bit provocative. It’s been great to have you. 

Kulkarni: Thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure. 

Salz: Thank you. And of course, thank you for tuning in taking the time. 

Of course, more coming in the series around how media companies are taking charge of changing their business and also increasing revenues. And in the meantime, be sure to check out digitalcontentnext.org for great content and including a companion post to this interview. And of course, join the conversation on Twitter at DCNorg until next time I’m Peggy Anne Salz signing off for Digital Content Next. 

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