Newswriting, as it exists today, began with the adoption of the telegraph, which roughly coincided with the start of the American Civil War. The necessity of getting at story through before the telegraph’s occasional malfunction forced a radical change in the style of writing used in reporting. Before the telegraph, much of writing news was just that: writing. News was reported much like books were written. The reporter would set the scene with a detailed account of the setting or the mood and tell the tale just like any other narrative that one might read simply for pleasure. Since the telegraph made it possible for news to be printed the day after it happened; it was immediately adopted as the preferred method of getting news to the newsroom. Occasionally, however, the telegraph line would go down. Often this happened during a transmission, and the remainder of the message could not be sent until the line was repaired. Since a detailed description of the setting and the mood are useless without the actual piece of news, the system of writing, now known as the inverted pyramid, in which the most important items are written first in a concise manner, was born. The inverted pyramid system, born of necessity, was absorbed into newswriting over the proceeding century, and exists today as the standard style for reporting news.
At the beginning of the civil war, the protracted narrative style still predominated the newswriting of the period. For the most part, stories were verbose almost to the point of obsequy and read more like an intellectual discourse on the topic, rather than a report of news. In a story on the front page of the Times of April 11, 1861, the reporter, who is begins his story, “Every good citizen must rejoice that the new administration manifests a disposition to guard more faithfully its State secrets than did its predecessors. The promulgation of the purposes of the Government while those are not yet entirely formed, or when disclosure would tend to defeat or embarrass them, is quite as weak as it is undignified. But this reticence may be carried to far, and lead to more mischief than it is designed to prevent.” It is important to note that these lines come not from an editorial, but from a story on the front page of the paper and that this is not a follow up to a news story about the administration’s decision to be more careful with its secrets. The news was presented as both a means of informing readers of recent events, and as a form of entertainment as recreational reading.
On the same page of the same paper as the previous selection were included several news bites that strongly resemble what would now be leads to news stories. These bites follow immediately after the headlines, which are listed in order of importance in the left-most column of the front page. The bites resemble a teaser in television news. One almost expects to read “details at eleven” after each item. For example, the first item, following the headlines of the same paper, under the heading “Our Washington Dispatches,” states, “The officers of the District Militia were yesterday ordered to have a meeting at 10 o’clock this morning, in consequence of information relative to a contemplated movement for the seizure of this city by the Secessionists under McCullough.” This passage shows a semblance of the now almost cliche’ who-what-when-where-why model for a lead sentence in a news story and as such indicates that the more modern form of news reporting exists, but does not yet dominate the news hole, as news stories written in this manner are still the exception.
Also on the front page of the same issue of the Times is a story bearing the headline “A Clue to the Destination of One of the Ships” . This story’s lead also does not follow the who-what-when-where-why format that is a necessary part of the inverted pyramid model. The lead is as follows: “At the Troy arsenal unusual bustle has been observable within the past week.” Had the story that followed this lead been about the “bustle” that had been observed at the Troy arsenal, then this would be a good lead suitable for a modern news story, however, the reporter goes on to tell of the relocation of three low ranking military officers, then how the rumored destination of an unnamed ship got into the hands of the reporter and only at the end of the story gives the clues that could indicate the ship’s terminus. Incidentally, the clue turned out to be a laundry list of repairs and modifications done to several vessels that had been chartered by the United States. Though the verbose narrative style had not yet given way to the inverted pyramid model, there is certainly evidence of its coming, especially among the smaller news stories toward the beginning of the news hole in the Times of 1861.
By 1917 and the beginning of the Great War, the use of the telegraph, along with other forms of electric communication, had become almost universal. The telegraph was by then an intercontinental communication tool, allowing the next-day coverage of events happening in Europe in the papers in America. Also by this time, the reporters were more used to the telegraph reporting and had nearly completed the shift of style to the inverted pyramid. The lead from a front page story in the April 4, 1917 issue of the Times, reads, “From the Prime Minister down all ranks of the British Democracy have been stirred to the depths of feeling by the declaration which the president of the United States made on behalf of the American Nation. ‘Hands across the sea,’ is no longer an adequate expression of the relationship between the two great English-speaking peoples. It is now a union of hearts forged by the bonds of a common fight for liberty and justice, the rights of small nations, and the cause of the common people.” This lead, while long and indulgently flowery, contains all of the most important aspects of a modern news lead. The elevated language of this piece certainly was not the rule of newswriting at the time, but it does illustrate the old style is not yet dead.
Immediately to the left of the previous story on the front page was a story with a very modern lead that states, “A proud and elated Cabinet surrounded the President this afternoon and discussed plans for waging a successful war against Germany.” In this lead, we see the who-what-when-where-why model followed almost perfectly. The only thing missing is the “where”, which is almost self-explanatory given the subjects and the action that are being discussed. While it would be out of the ordinary to see a description of the cabinet as “proud and elated,” in a modern newspaper, it is reasonable.
The combination of the two opposite styles of news reporting in the first piece from 1917, and the very modern lead in the second, illustrate that newswriting is changing from the original narrative style that was still very prominent in the newspapers from the Civil War era, to the more contemporary style that can be seen in the news papers of World War II.
By 1941 and the start of the second World War, the who-what-when-where-why lead in firmly in place, and would remain an industry standard through today. The front page of the Times form December 8, 1941 has seven lead graphs:
“The metropolitan district reacted swiftly yesterday to the Japanese attack in the Pacific.”
“War broke with lightening suddenness in the Pacific today when waves of Japanese bombers attacked Hawaii this morning and the United States Fleet struck back with a thunder of big naval rifles.”
“Japan was accused by Secretary of State Cordell Hull today of making a ‘treacherous and utterly unprovoked attack’ upon the United States and of having been ‘infamously false and fraudulent’ by preparing for the attack while conducting diplomatic negotiations with the professed desire of maintaining peace.”
And finally, “Sudden and unexpected attacks on Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, and other United States possessions in the Pacific early yesterday by the Japanese air force and navy plunged the United States and Japan in to active war.”
Following the inverted pyramid model, each of the stories with the leads listed above continues by listing the remaining facts in order of importance or told the entire story in chronological order.
The inverted pyramid allows the reader to get the most important by reading just the first graph of a story. In order to get as much reader-attracting news onto the front page as possible, the Times along with most other papers, began putting just the beginning of the most prominent stories on the front page, and continuing the stories elsewhere in the paper.
Another point of interest is that by World War II, reporters’s names are being included at the head of their stories, which was not seen during the Great War. This is evidence that reporting had become a much more respected profession and that reporters wanted credit for what they wrote, not just a pay check.
Between the Civil War and World War II, newswriting and reporting did an about face. During the Civil War, anonymous reporters wrote long, detailed narratives, pointing out details that gave the reader a sense an event in much the same way a novelist would describe a scene. Because of inventions like electric communications and the kerosene lamp, which afforded the poorer, less educated the illumination but not the vocabulary or the attention span to read sprawling accounts of events, newswriting became more focused on the communicating facts and less on entertaining the reader with artful renderings of the news. By World War II, news stories more closely resembled telegrams, written with the cost of each word in mind. While a Civil War reporter’s work might be compared to Ernest Hemingway’s account of a man catching a fish, a more recent reporter could be liken to Detective Joe Friday of Dragnet fame: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Efficient, not artful, writing became the standard.