The hourglass: a potential replacement for the inverted pyramid?

Could the Inverted Pyramid be defunct in the age of paywalls, with the more profitable Hourglass taking its place?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

A couple of weeks ago, a new audience-centred agency called the Audiencers launched. Like a good little Audience Engagement boy, I signed up to their email — and the first issue arrived this morning.

And, wow, do I disagree with it. One central plank of the issue is the idea of the Hourglass format for news, which is, the author argues, the natural successor of the Inverted Pyramid.

Here’s Eric Le Braz:

But in an hourglass, the publisher only specifies the angle from the title, often in the form of a question, but never provides readers with the answer before the paywall. They’ll outline the who, what, where and when whilst reserving the main answers to the premium part of the content – why, how, and what next?

So, in essence, the top part of the hourglass is a tease that tells you the piece ahead has what you’re looking for. Then, the narrow neck is the paywall, and the bottom half of hourglass is the bulk of the content.

This makes perfect sense, if you’re just looking to convert browsers to paying members. And yet…

Audience Engagement = Audience Respect

I’m really not convince that this is a good idea as a universal format for journalism. There’s a fundamental problem, in that this behaviour benefits the publisher far more than the reader. And so, it risks alienating and annoying readers as they keep stumbling across articles that hint at the information they want or need, but lock it away behind a subscription. There’s a fine line between intriguing the reader and pissing them off, and using this universally would push deep, deep into “pissing them off” territory. It’s a dangerous land, from which few customers ever return.

I’ve worked with many hard paywalled sites, with no free content at all, and we’ve always ended up building a layer of completely free content to let people see what they’re getting before they pay. Or, in some situations, switching to a metered paywall instead. Most people just won’t pay for content without a good idea of the sort of thing they’re getting.

This approach risks a highly transactional relationship with readers — they subscribe to get to a particular piece of information, and then they unsubscribe when that need is met. Now, this might be the perfect approach if your model is all about micro-transactions of the sort that Axate facilitates. But those models have struggled to get off the ground, and often work best as additive revenue on top of subscriptions from more committed readers.

A format isn’t an audience strategy

Beyond that, if this is going to work, you need to be really sure that the information you’ve put below the tease isn’t easily available elsewhere because then the whole sell just collapses. And even if you have unique content, you need to make sure you have a complete audience engagement strategy in place to follow up that purchase. You need it to make sure you convert that impulse (at best) and duress (at worst) purchase into a loyal reader through showing off the range of journalism you offer.

So, use the hourglass sometimes? Sure.

Always use the hourglass? No.

There’s life in the inverted pyramid yet

I disagree with this statement strongly:

And what about the inverted pyramid? It won’t likely have the same fate as the one of Cheops (which remains largely intact), more likely it’s destined to be forgotten like the festoons of the copyist monks or the Nokia 3310.

The inverted pyramid will survive because it’s a great, efficient format that communicates information effectively. The hourglass only works when you have a paywall tease on every article — that’s just one style of membership model. There are many others.

I might well end up using the hourglass here on certain pieces — Ghost can show a writer-determined extract of an article, and define where the paywall kicks in. It might be a useful device to covert new members on particular pieces. But there will always be some completely free to air content on most site — and there will always be some content completely locked behind paywalls.

Forcing those news stories into the Hourglass model when the Inverted Pyramid model works better in that context would be a mistake.

In conclusion

In essence, I don’t disagree with the concept of the Hourglass Model. But I see it as just one tool in your format toolbox, in which also sit the Inverted Pyramid, and the Explainer, and the Liveblog, and an ever-growing range of formats. My problem with the Audiencers’ piece is not the heart of it, but the framing that the Hourglass is the true successor of the Inverted Pyramid.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.