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Even after almost two years of daily consumption of US print (well, online) news, in particular, the NY Times, I still cannot get my head around the structure of their articles. I'll elaborate an example below. In summary, I fail to believe that this is accidental, and would like to understand the reasoning (or maybe just the history) behind it.

The article in question is Ahmad Khan Rahami’s Father Told Police in 2014 His Son Was a Terrorist, Officials Say, and I'll try my best to state my question without copying too much of its content here, but some copying cannot be avoided to clearly make my point. (Edit: I am happy I did, because the article has undergone a significant revision since I asked this question. Not for the better, though.)

The headline of the article hints at the main theme of the article: what the father told the police. This is the introductory paragraph:

Two years before Ahmad Khan Rahami went (...), his father told the police that the son was a terrorist, prompting a review by federal agents, (...).

Then follows a bunch of paragraphs which have nothing to do with the headline or that introductory paragraph. When I encounter something like this, I always end up being puzzled. These two are very specifically about a book he wrote and carried, which was unknown to me:

Separately on Tuesday, another official said that (...), he was carrying a notebook (...).

In one section of the book, (...).

This one is more generally about his motivation, yet unrelated to the theme of the article:

After Mr. Rahami was captured on Monday morning, (...), investigators have turned their focus to what might have motivated, inspired or led him (...).

This one is again more specific about assistance:

Officials are also looking at whether he had any assistance (...).

Now this one refers to the paragraphy BEFORE the previous one, the question of motivation (not assistance!):

Of particular interest to the authorities is a series of trips Mr. Rahami made (...).

And now this knocks me off completely. We finally come back to the main theme, using the phrase "the statement" to refer to something introduced five paragraphs before. In passing, we mention a dispute which will become relevant later.

The father made the statement (...) when Mr. Rahami was arrested after a domestic dispute.

The following paragraphs are directly related to the previous one - a rare circumstance:

The information was passed (...). Officers (...) interviewed the father, who then recanted.

An official, when asked about the inquiry, said (...).

But after two paragraphs of the expected, linear structure, it seems like the reporter had again something else on his mind that should be written before forgotten:

It is not clear if officers interviewed Ahmad Rahami.

As a consequence, we have to return the focus to the father again:

On Tuesday morning, (...), the father (...) told reporters, (...)

Asked if he specifically (...)

“No,” Mohammad Rahami said. (...)

And now again, for a final time, we come back to something (the dispute) which was introduced six paragraphs before!

Ahmad Rahami spent over three months in jail on charges related to the domestic dispute (...)

(end of the article)

So my problem with this is that there does not seem to be consistent line of thoughts which guides the article. My expected structure (as I know it) would somewhere along these lines:

  • An introductory paragraph (like the one in the article)
  • The most important facts, each directly coupled to relevant quotes and in direct succession (as opposed to separated by multiple paragraphs; here: the father's statements and the direct response)
  • Other unrelated and background information (here: motivation and travel; the book; assistance; interview; the dispute and its consequences)

I have many more examples like the one above, where the structure is more like this, with fact, quotes and background information interleaves, in an almost chaotic way:

  • An introductory paragraph
  • Fact 1
  • Some unrelated information
  • Fact 2
  • Some quote on fact 1
  • Some other unrelated information
  • Fact 3
  • Some quote on fact 2
  • ...

Is this specific to English/US-style news writing? Or is this more specific to online publishing in a way that the reporters, at whatever damage to the article's structure, try to stuff as much information, as diverse as possible, into the opening paragraphs for the benefits of readers who do not even read half-way through the article?

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    "Or is this more specific to online publishing in a way that the reporters, at whatever damage to the article's structure, try to stuff as much information, as diverse as possible, into the opening paragraphs for the benefits of readers who do not even read half-way through the article?" Ding ding ding! We have a winner! – Nick Weinberg Sep 20 '16 at 17:42
  • Can it really be that simple? Does a large news outlet really impact the quality of their output so strongly, so consistently, for such a long time, for this one purpose? If so, does this effect have a name that I can use to find more information about it? – bers Sep 20 '16 at 19:04
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    I'm pretty sure it is that simple, yes. A huge proportion of online readers skim the first paragraph or two, and it's only a small minority that reads the entire way through -- and journalists who write for the web have adapted to this. One name for it is a "Model T" structure, as explained under Point 6 "Never Bury the Lead" here: poynter.org/2003/writing-news-online/13605 , I don't know if there are other terms for it – Nick Weinberg Sep 20 '16 at 20:14
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When I was in school there was a teaching unit on newspaper articles. We learned how they were constructed and had to write some. For printed news, the articles are structured so they can be easily cut.

Newspapers have a fixed format, but news can have different volume. An article might be written, and then some other urgent news comes in that needs space on the page. So the first article has to be shortened – or something has to be added to it, as new important information comes in a few minutes before time of going to press.

Therefore news articles are always structured the same, so that the cutting editor does not have to think about where to cut. He just cuts from the end. For that reason, the more important information has to be at the beginning, and paragraphs – or sequences of paragraphs – are like self-contained subunits that, if you delete them, do not change the meaning of the overall article.

A second structural factor is time. Most readers do not have the time to read all of the New York Times every day. They scan the paper and only read what is important or interesting to them. For that reason, the articles are layered in three levels of detail.

The first level is the headline. The headlines in a good newspaper contains enough information to tell a reader who scans only the headlines what is going on in the world. The second level is the summary paragraph at the beginning. It is often set off from the body text in a larger or bolder or different font. This summary contains the most important information beyond the basic "what is going on" of the headline. The third level is the actual article. It adds detail to the summary, and it is structured with the most important information first, to be easily cut from the end (see above), and to allow readers to easily stop reading when the information becomes too irrelevant to them.

Online journalism no longer has to allow for a possible cutting, but the New York Times still appears in print, so it is plausible that this still influences the writing. And the layers of detail are obviously still there, as reading online doesn't change the readership's time constraints.

What did change is that online articles are not printed once a day but published immediately and sometimes edited later as new information appears. Maybe the New York Times stops editing once the article goes into print, but I don't know, and online-only news publishers sometimes keep editing an article as long as it is online.

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"News" articles (at least in America), aren't just about "news." They are also about the people who make the news.

So after beginning with a line or two of "hard" news, the article goes off on a tangent about police officers, public officials, or other people who are in any way connected with the news.

That's because the newspaper is trying to cultivate "sources." The reason is that newspapers get most of their news from such sources. This is more true today, when reporters do less "legwork," and instead "compile" most of their news from people they talk to on a regular basis. The amount of coverage they give to sources, as opposed to news, reflects that fact.

A piece of "news" lasts for a day. A source can last for "life" (or at least for the career).

Kudos if your post actually got them to alter their (online) article, if only a little bit.

  • Thanks for your answer, that's a good point that I was not aware of. I doubt they edited the article in response to my question here, though, it's mainly an update of an evolving story with new material from addition sources (yes, indeed). My editing the question should just make people aware that the linked article does not represent my question paragraph by paragraph any longer. – bers Sep 21 '16 at 0:04
  • @bers: FWIW, I used to be a "journalist" in high school and college (decades ago). – Tom Au Sep 21 '16 at 0:06

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