In this chapter we shall concentrate on newspapers and magazines, and look at features. Radio and television can do similar things with documentaries, and some of the principles in this chapter will apply to documentaries. We look at what features are, and the kinds of features which are commonly used.
What are features?
A feature is an opportunity to take more than a superficial look at something. It is an opportunity to explore the background to an issue, or the character of the person behind a news event.
It is an opportunity to offer the reader a better understanding of the news which you are reporting elsewhere in the newspaper.
A newspaper which had no features at all would seem shallow, because there is not enough space within most news stories to dig very deeply into issues. A newspaper which had only features and no news stories would seem narrow, because it would not be able to cover all the stories it should. In fact, magazines do often limit themselves to one specialist subject in this way.
A good newspaper balances its news and features, so that there is always space to give in-depth coverage of one or two news events each day, while covering adequately all the news which the readers want.
In some ways, it is easier to say what a feature isn't than to say what it is.
It is not an opportunity for a journalist who secretly wants to be a great novelist to indulge himself or herself. If you want to write artistic prose, do it in your own time; your first duty while writing for a newspaper or magazine is to inform the readers, and after that to entertain or amuse them. Of course, you should write well if you can, and there is more scope in a feature than in a hard news story for your writing style to show through. The most important thing, however, is the content of the feature; if you allow the literary style to get in the way of the content, you will have failed.
It is not a way of disposing of subjects which are long and boring, but which you feel obliged to publish. Every feature should be assessed on its merits in exactly the same way as every news story - is it newsworthy? In fact, since it will take up many times more space than a news story, it needs to be that much more interesting to deserve the space.
It is not a very long news story. As we shall see later, the structure of a feature is quite different from a news story. You might set out to write a 400-word news story, find that you have much more material, and write 1,000 words. You have not written a feature. You have written a 1,000-word news story (and have probably wasted your time and your employer's money).
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Structure of a feature
As we saw in Chapter 3: The shape of the news story, a simple news story is structured as an inverted pyramid. This means that the most important information is presented first, followed by the rest of the information in diminishing order of importance. A news story written in this way can be cut from the back without fundamentally damaging it.
A feature is not written in this way at all. A feature has a beginning, a middle and an end. If a feature is cut from the back, it will leave the story hanging in the air, and leave the reader wondering where the rest of it has gone.
A feature is structured more like the advanced pyramid of pyramids story structure which we looked at in the Introduction to advanced techniques. [Link] Like that complex news story, the subject matter of the feature is divided up into separate pieces, each of which is told completely before moving on to the next.
There is a difference between a feature and a pyramid of pyramids news story, though. There is no reason why the pieces in a feature should each be structured as a mini-inverted pyramid; and there is no reason why the most newsworthy piece should be told first, and the least newsworthy last.
Sometimes in a feature you will wish to deal with one piece of the story first, to make sure that the reader understands all the issues involved, before moving on to a more important part of the story. This is perfectly acceptable.
The bead necklace
A feature is rather like a necklace, and each piece of the story is like a cluster of beads. Just as a necklace would not look attractive if the biggest bead was put on first, followed by the next biggest, down to the smallest, so the parts of a feature do not seem right when they are written as mini-inverted pyramids.
Use each paragraph like a bead. Thread on a paragraph or two of descriptive writing, followed by a paragraph of argument. Then thread on a few paragraphs of quotes - some from one side of the debate, some from the other side - with one bead in between them: a paragraph introducing the second speaker. This cluster of beads will have told one part of the story.
You could give exactly the same pile of beads to ten different people, and they would make ten different necklaces. So it is with features. There is no absolute right way or wrong way of writing any feature, just different ways. Nevertheless, just as one person's necklace will look more attractive than another person's, and just as people become better at making attractive necklaces as they practise, so some features are better than others, and you will get better with practice.
Develop a sense of balance, between the different kinds of paragraph - description, argument, quote, comment. And try to read your own features as if you were a reader who had never seen them before. Develop an understanding of what makes your features easier to read, and what makes them harder to read.
Write to length
It is obviously even more important with features than with news stories to write to length. If the editor asks you for a 300-word news story and you write 350 words, you will be a nuisance, but your last 50 words can simply be deleted (and if you have written the story properly, the story will still be intact).
If, however, the editor asks for an 800-word feature and you write 950 words, you will create real headaches for the sub-editor, for the reader and for yourself. Newspaper pages are not made of elastic; a space which is big enough for 800 words cannot stretch to take 950.
Cutting a well-written feature is difficult for a sub-editor; you should do it before you hand it in. This has two advantages. First, it saves production time; and second, it increases the chances of the cuts being done well, since they are being done by the writer, who understands the merits of each part of the feature.
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Subjects for features
One British newspaper had for many years the slogan "All human life is there". Nothing less than all human life is the subject matter for features.
A frequent complaint about the news media is that they tell only bad news. It is easy to see why.
Most things which happen suddenly, and are therefore news, are unwelcome. For example, deaths, accidents, crimes and so on all happen suddenly, and they are all unwelcome. Very few people can think of anything which could happen to them suddenly that they would welcome, other than winning money in a lottery.
Most things which people will welcome happen only slowly and gradually, and are therefore not news in the strictest sense. For example, the terracing of a village's hillside farmland, to prevent soil erosion, will take many years, and there is never a precise moment at which the work can be said to be done. Yet this is surely good news.
Features offer an opportunity for a newspaper to redress this balance. They are a chance to step back and view life in perspective, to relate current events to a wider social and historical perspective. They are an opportunity to tell the good news as well as the bad.
"All human life" means just that, the whole of your readers' lives - physical, mental and spiritual. You must reflect their working lives, their leisure activities, their family lives, their spiritual lives.
Above all, you must choose subjects which will interest your readers. No feature can hope to interest everybody, but you must aim to appeal to as wide an audience as possible in general features. There is scope to write for minority interests as well, but we shall come to that later when we consider columns.
Remember that it is not just news and leisure which are suitable for features. The business pages and the sports pages, too, can carry both news and features on their own subjects.
In fact, all sports editors should always have five or six good sports features up their sleeve, for that awful day when all the sport is rained off and they have nothing live to report.
Let us look, then, at the different kinds of features which we commonly find. They fall into two main categories - dated features and undated features.
Dated features will date and become unusable, just like news stories. Undated features can be written in advance and kept until there is space to publish them.
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There are many categories of dated features, but the most common are the following:
The first and most important type of dated feature is the news feature, which offers extra understanding of the news of the day. It can take many forms:
These explain the historical or social setting in which events are taking place. They help the reader to understand why current events are provoking the reactions which they do. They are especially helpful in understanding news in societies and cultures with which readers are unfamiliar.
2. Situation reports
These act like a picture of the present state of affairs in a place which has been in the news in the past, but is not now producing news stories. What is the political situation in Uganda, or the security situation in Sri Lanka, or the economic situation in Ho Chi Minh City?
3. Personality profiles
News is about people, because people make the news. If something important is happening, it helps readers to understand it if they are told more about the person behind the news.
A newspaper, radio or television station's own investigations may reveal something which the public ought to know. There are often injustices in any society - social, economic or political - which journalists can bring to light. Features about inadequate housing conditions for poor people in towns, child abuse or favouritism in political appointments can open a society's eyes to its own problems.
One of the greatest scandal of US politics was revealed in a series of newspaper features - the Watergate scandal, which eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Although the amount of space which will be needed to publish such revelations makes them features for an inside page, they will normally also be exclusive news. For this reason, you should also write a news story for publication on page one, cross-referred to the feature inside.
5. Analysis and predictions
An informed and skilled person may be able to write features predicting future events, on the basis of analysing present information. Care must be taken with these, however, as uninformed predictions make newspapers look very stupid. It is often a good idea to invite an academic or experienced person to write a feature of this kind, rather than to write it yourself.
6. Debate of issues
A controversial issue may be debated through the feature pages of a newspaper, so that your readers may be given the arguments for both sides and be able to make up their own minds. This is often best done by two people with opposing views each writing an argument to support their case. These may be published either on consecutive days or together on the same day.
Good news features
The building of a family business over a period of 20 years is not hard news, because there is no one moment at which it can be said to have happened. It is good news, though, and it is important to report it in order to give a balanced view of society, with all its achievements and failures.
These are dated features, in that they must be published at a particular time, but they are like undated features in that they can be written ahead of time and stored.
They are features which recall an event from the past, and look again at the event or its implications, or a little-known aspect of it. The feature will be published on or near an anniversary of the event itself.
Not every anniversary of an event is suitable for publishing such a feature. Good anniversaries are the first, fifth, tenth, 20th, 25th, 50th, 75th, 100th and any other centenary (200th, 300th etc).
There are two types of columns, and they have one thing in common - they are written by one named person and all the views expressed in that column are his or her views. It is not necessary for a column to be impartial and objective; part of its function may well be to provoke people by offering a strong or even biased point of view.
It must certainly have something definite to say. People often enjoy reading a point of view with which they strongly disagree as much as one with which they agree. They will certainly enjoy either of these more than a column which offers no point of view at all.
Columns offer a newspaper an excellent opportunity to introduce two things which readers enjoy, but which are not generally appropriate elsewhere - calculated bigotry, and humour.
1. News opinion column
This is especially true of the first type of column - the news opinion column. In this a columnist writes about the news and offers an opinion of the merits of what is being done and the way it is being done. No junior reporter should expect to be allowed to write a column such as this. Not only is there the danger of being sued for defamation, but also it will be very difficult for a young person of limited experience to write a column of sufficient depth.
2. Minority interest column
In this second type of column, regular space can be devoted each day, or each week, to a particular subject such as cookery, or golf, or pets, or bush-walking, or any activity about which there is something to say and interested people to buy the paper and read it.
Reviews and previews
Your readers will want to decide whether to pay their hard-earned money to go and see a new play or film, or to hear a concert, to go to an art exhibition or to eat at a new restaurant. You can help them to decide by publishing previews or reviews.
Both of these are your description and opinion of the film or play or concert or exhibition; a preview is published before it is open to the public (as a result of a special press preview) and a review is published as soon as possible after the first public performance.
We shall deal in detail with reviews and previews in Chapter 52.
The diary column of a newspaper should not be allowed to become a dustbin for all the material which could not get into the news columns. Each item should be a genuinely interesting, amusing or illuminating piece of news or gossip about the world in which we live.
Be warned, though: people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Newspapers are full of typographical and spelling errors, so it is unwise ever to make fun of somebody else's typographical or spelling error, however amusing the result. Also, if you use your diary column to criticise people who throw rubbish out of car windows, you had better make sure that nobody ever sees you doing the same thing. Practise what you preach.
Like anniversary features, these can be written in advance but must be used at a particular time - when the subject of the obituary dies. Of course, you cannot tell in advance when you are going to need an obituary (usually referred to as an obit).
An obit is an account of the life and achievements of an eminent person who has just died. A disorganised newspaper is always taken by surprise by the death of such a person, and scrambles an obituary together after hearing of the event. It publishes the obit a couple of days later.
Nobody should be taken by surprise by death - it is the only thing in life which is certain. The organised newspaper has obituaries ready written on all the eminent people who matter to its readers. From time to time, when a person is in the news, his or her obit can be taken out of the filing cabinet and updated. When an eminent person does die, their obit will only need to be brought up-to-date and it can be published immediately.
We shall deal more fully with obituaries in Chapter 51.
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These may be about any subject under the sun (or, indeed, about the sun itself), but it will always help you to decide what will interest your readers if you ask yourself what your readers do with their time.
One good indication of this is what they spend their money on: if they are keen enough to spend money on it, they will probably also want to read about it. This will have a commercial spin-off, if yours is a commercial newspaper, in that you will be able to sell advertising space connected to those activities. Don't forget, though, that some activities may be popular but not need any money spending on them, such as bush walking. And don't neglect generally popular features such as nostalgia or light humour.
The world is changing quickly, and the news media can help people to keep pace with the change. Educational features can help people, especially in developing countries, to understand the changes around them, and to adapt.
You could run features on health and hygiene, giving up-to-date practical advice on how to improve the prevention of disease in the village and how to treat simple illnesses.
You could run features on better methods of farming, to give small-scale village farmers higher standards of living, and thereby to build up the country.
Newspapers can run special features for people who have just learned to read, written by a language expert in a way which these people can understand. In this way the new media can play a role in building up their nation.
Food and drink
Everybody must eat and drink. As soon as people can afford it, they start to enjoy food and drink as luxuries rather than just to stay alive. Popular features are recipes, which can be very useful for introducing readers to ways of cooking from other cultures. You may also wish to publish reviews of restaurants, and even a wine column.
As soon as people can afford it, they like to take holidays. When they cannot afford it, they like to dream about holidays. A lot of money is spent every year on travel, both holiday and business travel. You will offer your readers a service if you write intelligently and informatively about how to spend their money wisely and enjoy travel to the full.
Fashions change in all sorts of things, but especially in clothes, and many people consider it important that they are up-to-date in the clothes they wear. An informed regular report on fashion, with good photographs to show readers what is in fashion, will always be popular - especially with women readers.
Rock music stars, movie stars, sportsmen and women, millionaires and royalty ... readers often have a great appetite for knowing all about these people's lives.
There are a host of leisure activities which can be written about, either as regular columns or as single features.
It is often a good idea if you, the writer, go and try parachuting, or diving, or horse riding, or mountaineering, and then write about it. It makes it more real for the reader and it makes life more interesting for you. A local club will often allow you to use its facilities for free in return for the publicity which it will get, in the hope that your feature will attract new members.
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Newspapers need to provide a good balance of news and features
Features provide an opportunity to report in depth
Features provide an opportunity to report good news
A feature is structured like a bead necklace, and not like an inverted pyramid
Features can and should be about the whole of human life
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