Copywriting: burying the angle to increase dwell time

Internet advertising revenue, the value of clicks and website dwell time are leading to the rise of a new phenomenon: the buried news angle. Podium copywriter Steve Maybury looks at the issue and explains why the approach may bring short-term gains, but will alienate readers in the long-term.

The art of news reporting involves getting the angle of the story – the best, most interesting aspect – out there first. It hooks the audience, but also means that the point of the story is successfully conveyed in the event that they stop paying attention.

Here’s an example:

Look at this famous newspaper front page. A complete story in two words, with the option to read on if you want more detail.

You’ll notice it doesn’t say ‘You’ll never guess what’s happened to Hitler now!’ then spend four pages describing everything that’s happened up to this point, before revealing that he’s died.

buried angle4

This approach actually has its roots in the way that newspapers were edited before digital technology arrived. Stories would be cut from the bottom upwards, so you couldn’t risk putting anything too important there.

The top three paragraphs

As a rule of thumb, the top three paragraphs of any newspaper story would tell you everything you need to know. Anything after that is additional detail to flesh the story out: quotes, background, etc.

Traditionally, a trainee journalist would have been reprimanded for ‘burying’ the angle towards the bottom of a story, but the rise of internet-based news means this is a growing issue.

There are two likely reasons for this:

1. Lower standards

There are more ‘news’ outlets now than there is time or money to train writers properly, so people are just being left to get on with it.

2. Advertising, clicks and dwell time

The more people you can get to click on a website, and the longer they stay, the more money you make. So if you hide the salient facts of a story at the bottom of the text, making them scroll past adverts and images and links, then you’ll make more money.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is, it isn’t reader-friendly. The angle should be presented in a way that allows the reader to decide whether or not they want to read on. Many articles online now are just riddles with terrible, underwhelming punchlines. 

Here’s an example. This story is about a footballer, and claims to explain why he’s not yet played for his new club.

The headline certainly seems to hint that there may be something mysterious going on. It’s got to be worth a read, right?

buried-angle1

So we scroll down to the text…

buried-angle2

The intro repeats the headline, paragraphs two and three give some background, and then repeat the headline again. We’re offered the chance to click elsewhere on the website, and then we get to paragraph four. Which talks about a match in which the subject of the story did not feature.

JUST TELL US WHAT THE PROBLEM IS!

We then have to scroll down further, past a photograph, before, finally, we are given the info we have come for. I hope it was worth the wait. What can it possibly be?

buried-angle3

Yeah, he’s got a slight injury. That really should have been the angle of the story. Kyle McAllister is yet to make his Derby debut because of injury.

We might not even have needed to click the link: and therein lies the problem. News sites need readers to stay as long as possible and see as many adverts as they can possibly show us.

The above example isn’t a great story at all, and it’s almost as if they knew that… the result is that the reader feels cheated. They’ve invested time in this story for a relatively poor pay-off.

Audiences won’t put up with this forever and quality will always win in the end. Stop burying the angle before people stop reading.