News in newspapers is written so that it may be edited from the bottom up. As old editors liked to say, a page form is not made of rubber. It won’t stretch. What doesn’t fit is thrown away. Historians trace the inverted pyramid, which is not the traditional style of British or other foreign newspapers, to the American Civil War, when correspondents, fearing that the telegraph would break down before they could finish 3 Irving Fang transmitting their dispatches, put the most important information into the first paragraph and continued the story with facts in descending order of news value. During the days of letterpress printing, the makeup editor fit lead type into the steel chase by the simple expedient of tossing paragraphs away — from the bottom — until the type fit the allotted space. In modern offset lithography the same job can be accomplished by a razor blade or a computer delete key; the editing, especially under time pressure, is often still done from the bottom of a story up.
The reading of a newspaper matches bottom-up editing. The reader’s eye scans the headlines on a page. If the headline indicates a news story of interest, the reader looks at the first paragraph. If that also proves interesting, the reader continues. The reader who stops short of the end of a story is basically doing what the editor does in throwing words away from the bottom.
If newspaper stories were consumed sequentially as they are in radio and television newscasts, the writing style would change of necessity. If, for instance, a newspaper reader was unable to turn to page 2 before taking in every word on page 1 starting in the upper left hand corner and continuing to the lower right corner, the writing style of newspaper stories would, I believe, soon resemble a radio newscast.
Yet, although the newspaper reader can go back over a difficult paragraph until it becomes clear, a luxury denied to listeners to broadcast news, it is also true, as one newspaper editor noted, that if the newspaper reader has to go back often to make sense of stories, the reader is likely to go back to the television set.
Television news style is much like radio news style, for a viewer can no more return to a group of facts than a listener can. The viewer, like the listener, does not always focus on what the newscaster says. Television news adds further complexities when pictures join the words; that is, anchors or reporters deliver what is called a "voice over."
Ideally the words that accompany a videotape story of an event are written, even under time pressure, only after the writer has viewed the unedited videotape and made editing decisions such that the pictures follow a logic of their own. In…