CAMP 2014: Long-form reporting takes more than an inverted pyramid

Jennifer LaFleur leads an investigative reporting training at CAMP.

Story by 2014 Fellow Marina Villeneuve | Photo by Kira Zalan

The inverted pyramid, a model made popular by newswire services and long taught by journalism schools, stresses putting the most important who-what-where-when-why information up at the top of stories. Though this model has long allowed editors to easily cut off less relevant chunks of information near the end, it can be dull, clunky and lose readers before they get to the end, according to a JAWS panel Oct. 30.

Rather, journalists who undertake investigative projects should approach writing such pieces thematically, said SUNY-Albany journalism professor Rosemary Armao.

“The beginning is the most important part,” said Armao.

First, begin with a lede – an engaging visual, character, metaphor or other literary way of getting readers into the story. One of the strongest such ledes, Armao said, are ones that go, “Bam!” and clearly describe the extent of the examined problem.

Then, move on to the nut graph that in 25 words or less sums up the gist of the story. Longtime Wall Street Journal journalist Steven Lovelady popularized the 25-word rule, which Armao said can be a remedy for writer’s block. Be sure to include what Armao calls the “rats-ass paragraph,” which explains why they should care about this.

“You have to make it very clear to people” what’s the matter, and later on, how they can help, Armao said.

Including a list of findings from your investigation can be a good way of laying out your article for readers – but be wary of including too many findings. Keep control of the story, said Armao, and stick to perhaps two or three. Also up high in the story must be a quote from “someone other than you saying it’s a problem,” she said.

Panelist Susy Schultz, president of the Community Media Workshop, suggested another paragraph: a humility graph “about what we don’t know.” Here, clear your throat and put in the caveats. Next could be the denial – a statement from the person or entity you’re holding accountable.

Such a statement will often say, “Everything you talked about is technically right, but it’s wrong because you don’t understand it,” said Armao.

But, if you don’t even get a statement, find someone who will make the argument borne, said Maud Beelman, Associated Press editor of news coverage and editorial operations in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. As you move into the middle sections of the article, keep the narrative flowing and keep throwing good quotes and scenes at readers so they keep reading. Structuring the middle sections around your findings can keep it easy for readers, panelists said. And at the end of the article, have a kicker that goes back to the lede with a new angle.

“If you wrote about a couple facing big problems, end with them going forward,” Armao said.

Along with structure, they all also recommended focusing on individual sentences, particularly when writing about complex issues.

You might write better at night, or in the morning, or with no interruptions, or at a bustling café. Whichever way it is, said panelists, make sure it’s a way that works for you and the story you’re seeking to tell – not necessarily what you learned in school.

Editor’s note 11/26/14: Name of panelist has been changed for correct spelling.