From the inverted pyramid to the tumbled pyramid (João Canavilhas)

When I published the news diamond model, a number of commentators from Brazil and Portugal compared it with João Canavilhas’ ‘Tumbled Pyramid’ model, which looks at online reading patterns and suggests a new way to structure online journalism. João very kindly agreed to write a post for the OJB summarising this model – here it is:

The inverted pyramid model as the prime writing technique is usually implied when we discuss journalism. The emergence of the web, with its hypertext potentialities, opens new windows of opportunities. Now, journalists are able to provide new and immediate reading horizons by creating links between texts or other multimedia components which can be organised into layers of information.
But how will readers react when faced with several optional reading paths? Do they follow a reading pattern or does each individual have their own way of reading?

For the analysis of reading paths on the web, a group of users were asked to read a specific web-based news model containing several links to different information levels. For the purpose of this research, a news article was prepared consisting of ten web pages linked up by both menu links and in-text links. The organisation of the news was based on layered information architecture (fig. 1). In the opening text five in-text links led to a second information level. Three out of five second-level texts included one in-text link leading to a third level, and a navigation menu with links to all remaining texts of the same or previous level. In-text links invariantly led to the following information level.

Figure 1Figure 1

The participants were told to read the news as they would ordinarily, and no time limit was set. Camtasia Software was used to record every mouse movement, thus tracking reading paths.


From the data analysis the following conclusions are drawn:

  1. 76,5% of users clicked onto the second level, following the first in-text link in the text. From this group, 57,7% went on to the third level of the news, following the only in-text link in this second text. On the other second-level text with a in-text link, 67,6% used the link to proceed to a third level.
  2. 23% of readers follow a routine of reading by levels: they click on the in-text link and afterwards return to the initial text.
  3. 77% follow an individual reading path.
  4. The first time readers were faced with several links (5), 5 different paths were identified; on the following step, the variety of paths rose to 11; on the third stage, 22 reading paths were followed, out of a possible 55.

Despite the news having been composed by hierarchically organised layers of information, defined by the level of relevance, the data collected in this research suggest that readers chose to follow through certain topics to the limit of available information by clicking on the in-text links and stepping onto other information levels.

This behaviour suggests that web news writing compels a shift from the paradigm of printed press techniques. While data organisation in print progresses towards contents deemed the least relevant by the journalist, online it is the readers who define their own reading paths.

The inverted pyramid technique, while appropriate for breaking news, proves less efficient when it comes to more elaborate web news, since it conditions readers to reading routines similar to those of the printed press.

The identification of 22 reading paths as early as the third stage of interaction raises an important question: is the use of a technique whereby input is arranged according to estimated relevance advisable for a kind of journalism pertaining to an active medium? I am convinced otherwise. The data collected throughout this study advise that web journalism embrace a paradigm different to the one underlying the inverted pyramid technique – to an organising logic based on the relevance of facts that the other person must follow, now based on the amount of information available to the readers.

If the vertical axis ranging from the vertex to the base means that the top is more important than the base, then the pyramid must shift its position, so as to avoid a hierarchy of news based on the relevance of related facts.

Research data further indicate that the journalist’s criteria in arranging information did not necessarily match those of readers, which may suggest that the use of the inverted pyramid technique in web journalism might actually result in a loss of readers.

In web journalism the amount (and variety) of available information is the reference variable. The news builds from a level of less information to increasingly deeper and varied information levels on the theme (figure 2). Though information levels are clearly defined, texts are not organised according to relevance. Instead, there is an attempt to highlight reading clues.

By contrast with the inverted pyramid model, a graphical representation of this architecture seems to suggest a tumbled pyramid (fig.3).

Figure 2Figure 2 Figure 3Figure 3

As in the case of the inverted pyramid, readers might abandon reading at any point without missing the meaning of the story. However, this model offers the possibility either of following through only one of the available reading axes or of navigating freely across the news.

The results from this research lead us to propose the following four-levelled, tumbled-pyramid structure:

  • Base Unit (lead). Four of the key questions are answered here: What, When, Who, Where. This first text may be breaking news, depending on which developments may or may not develop into a more elaborate format.
  • Explanation Level. This answers Why and How, completing the essentials on the event.
  • Contextualisation Level. Further information is provided on each of the previous W’s, whether in text format, video, sound or animated infography.
  • Exploration Level. At this level, the news is linked to the publication’s archives or to external ones.

In short, the tumbled pyramid is a liberating technique for users as well as for journalists. If users can navigate through the news following their own reading paths, journalists rely on a set of stylistic devices which, combined with new multimedia contents, allow a reinvention of web journalism with all kind of news.

João Canavilhas
Universidade da Beira Interior

Full paper


16 thoughts on “From the inverted pyramid to the tumbled pyramid (João Canavilhas)

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  2. Colin Campbell

    Personally, I am very random in how I develop my understanding of stories. It is very hard to know how to hang on to readers, there are just so many of them, so many languages, so many personal issues and then there are the other things that you can do on the internet. It is just so bloody distracting.

  3. Demétrio de Azeredo Soster

    Hi! My name is Demétrio de Azeredo Soster, journalism teatcher off Univattes College, by Lajeado – Rio Grande do Sul, Brasil. I and my studentes will need invite you to visit Lambida Digital, our blog. In special because we discussing the tumbled pyramid in class. (Sorry, my english is terrible!)

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  9. Dan

    This is informative and something to consider, but I also think you might just be turning the same inverted pyramid on it’s side and calling it something else. Basically, in traditional writing, you have to establish the four elements of Base Level so your readers know what you’re talking about. You can’t explain why and how, the elements of Explanation Level, until that is done–at which point you do that. Then, you try to put this news in a proper context of why it is important, how important, what it’s related to, some history, etc. These are the “less relevant” facts–not irrelevant, but dependent on getting out the previous elements first.

    So in effect, this is the same as a print story, with the addendum that you put a bunch of links at the bottom for your reader to explore the issue further at the end.


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