Chapter 50: Features
 

Chapter 50: Features

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).

^^back to the top

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. 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.

^^back to the top

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.

^^back to the top

Dated features

There are many categories of dated features, but the most common are the following:

News features

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:

1. Backgrounders
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.

4. Revelations
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.

Anniversary features

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).

Columns

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.

Diary column

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.

Obituaries

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.

^^back to the top

Undated features

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.

Educational features

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.

Travel

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.

Fashion

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.

Entertainment

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.

Leisure

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.

^^back to the top

RADIO AND TELEVISION NEWS FEATURES

News features on radio and television can range from quite short segments within programs to lengthy documentaries or multi-program documentary series. Broadcasting news features should follow the same general principles as print features and radio or television bulletins. (See Chapter 49)

 The Three Ts

The main ingredients in making a great radio or TV feature are:

TOPIC

TALENT

TREATMENT

One could also include “Time”, but journalists and producers can never find enough of that; they always want more time!

Topic – The subject matter a journalist chooses to write about. Within any topic there might be a number of ‘issues’ you can explore. An issue is a topic presented as a problem or a matter in dispute. In news terms, we also call the topic issue the “news angle”; what the feature is about.

It must interest your target audience(s) to tune in, keep them listening and inspire them to remember it – and maybe talk about it to other people, spreading the word.

The topic can be almost anything, but if it is a news feature, then it needs to fulfil the criteria for ‘What is news’. These are explained more fully in Chapter 1 of The News Manual.

Talent The media’s term for people who appear in programs, movies, features etc.

Radio, television and online audio must have people speaking. This can be a speech or public pronouncement but people answering interview questions means you can get answers that will interest your listeners or viewers. Good talent are people who not only know the subject matter they are speaking on but can communicate it well. And in a longer piece like a news feature, a variety of talent is best, to change the sound and pace of the program.

Treatment – In the media, a treatment is a plan of what you want to produce.

A treatment is the way you plan your feature, guiding you in gathering the different parts of it – such as research, facts, interviews, sound effects, music etc - and then in editing it all together.

In movie making, the treatment is only the plan, but radio and television news features can change as they are being made, so the treatment becomes part of the actual production process. It develops as you find the pieces of your documentary such as new facts, the talent, audio or vision you might discover etc. As your feature evolves, so must your treatment.

Often, the Topic is obvious – such as anything to do with a current newsworthy event – or it can be assigned to you.

Finding the right Talent is a mixture of good research and your ability to assess people, but it can also depend on good luck.

Your ability to produce a good Treatment and to implement it depends on your own skills as a storyteller, skills which develop with experience and practice.

All of these – Topic, Talent and Treatment - have to be the very best you can do.

A great talent without a good topic or with a poor treatment will be wasted. A great topic without people to express it will fail. Just as in movie making, you can have the best idea in the world and invest large amounts of money but if you don’t have a good cast of actors, it will not be a great movie.

^^back to the top

Practical steps in producing radio and TV news features

Your audience should always come first when you begin planning your news feature. And they should continue at the front of your mind all the way through the planning, production and scheduling process.

Although the listener or viewer comes in at the very end of the broadcasting process, they are the target you are constantly aiming at in everything you do. The best program in the world is wasted if nobody watches or listens to it.

So it’s only smart to think about who your audiences are, what they want, what will they understand and how you can grab both their attention and their hearts.

You may have been making programs for, say, young people for years but every program is a new event, so planning for it first involves thinking of those young listeners again.

What have they already heard? What might they want to hear now? How can I make this story relevant to them?

A lot depends on the media outlet you are making your news feature for. If it is a large broadcaster with a general audience, you may need to appeal to a wide cross-section of people in terms of gender, age, education, income, cultural interests and personal ideologies. This can be restricting but does not mean you cannot be inventive and daring in your production – just try to not leave any listeners or viewers behind.

On the other hand, if your audience is niche with special interests and from more narrow backgrounds, you can tailor your production more specifically. And if the program hosting your feature is nightly, hard news current affairs, you may need to be more conventional in your approach and production than, say, for an arts and culture program.

Whatever the situation, think first about your audience.

Then – and only then – can you go back to start the planning process. While there are some important differences between making content for radio and television, whether for broadcast on-air or posting online - the following advice applies generally to both audio and visual news features.

Decisions you will need to make include the following:

Choosing the topic
Sometimes the topic is already chosen for you, either by events or by someone higher in your organisation, such as your editor. It may be dictated by a seemingly straightforward, important event – such as an air crash or a mass protest. The topic choses itself and your task begins with how best to tell the story of it.

However, sometimes the specific topic has to be chosen from a more general situation, such as the spread of a deadly virus, such as the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. As mentioned above, exactly how you decide to treat the story – the Treatment – will depend on several things such as your choice of news angle, the resources you have available or even the people you can interview.

Selecting the best news angle
As we discuss elsewhere in Chapter 4, the news angle is not a description of the event or even determined by the event. It is a choice made by the journalist in how you will report the event, the perspective (angle) from which you will look at the event. It is sometimes described as the door through which you enter the event. Sometimes there are many doors to choose from, sometimes only a few and occasionally only one. Often, the more complex the real-life event is the more news angles you can choose from. During the coronavirus pandemic (the overall event), many thousands of journalists around the world were daily choosing different news angles to enter their news story or feature through, for example statistics of cases and death, announcements by governments, advice from experts, opinions by influential people, human interest stories of sufferers or families – the list was seemingly endless.

But even apparently straightforward topics can have a variety of news angles for you to choose from. The seemingly simple plane crash might suggest an obvious news angle – the number or people who died. But if no-one died, perhaps the news angle would be that this was extremely unusual – the term “miracle” might be used. And if everyone except a baby passenger died, then the angle of the news feature might be on the baby – who it was, how it survived, what happened to its parents or carer.

Remember, the news angle is little more than the way you start your news item or feature, how you grab your listener’s or viewer’s attention and begin telling the story of the event. Once you are in the story, the number of angles and issues you cover will probably grow and change. The story of the baby who survived may start your feature, but you may continue to discuss issues like passenger safety, the airline’s safety record, the response of the rescuers etc.

In a news feature, the news angle sometimes reappears at the end, to wrap the whole segment or program together, to bring it full circle. For example, you may end by talking about the baby survivor again, what the future holds for the child.

Length and format
Part of the Treatment, sometimes the length and format are dictated to you, perhaps by scheduling considerations, sometimes by the overall tone and format of the program in which your feature will appear. For example, in a news and current affairs program, your feature might be quite serious in tone, factual and tightly constructed with several elements. In a magazine format it might be more relaxed with fewer but more lengthy elements, perhaps even only one or two interviews, less formal in style.

When you are asked to produce a news feature, always check how long it should be. If you don’t work regularly on the specific program where it will be broadcast, ask about the format and listen to some previous broadcasts to get a sense of the tone and pace of the program. Sometimes, current affairs programs start with serious issues then end with a lighter segment. Check which the producers want from your feature.

If you are a freelance journalist trying to find someone to broadcast your feature, produce a description of the topic, angle, length and format that you can give to potential program producers or commissioning editors.

Voices and interviews
News is about people – the people involved in the issue or event or people affected by them. Your listeners and viewers will often tune in to imagine how they too might have been affected or might yet be affected. The media are all about sharing knowledge and experiences, with you, the journalist, as the vital link in this sharing process. Even remote, non-human events such as the explosion of a distant star can be presented as news if you can show how it might impact on your audiences, perhaps by making comparisons with what might happen to our solar system, maybe reassuring your audience it won’t happen here for millions of years.

So, because news is about people, let’s hear their voices on radio and additionally see them on television. The voices might be people involved in the event or issue, victims, rescuers, witnesses, law makers, experts, or just ordinary people commenting on what is happening. With the exploding star, obvious voices are those of cosmologists or psychologists speaking about human fear, for example. For more on interviewing, read Chapter 16.

Exactly how you include voices in your news feature depends on several factors including:

  • availability of audio/footage of people speaking
  • possibility of an interview, either face-to-face or over the phone or Internet
  • how important to the feature is what they say
  • how interesting and fluent are they as speakers
  • technical quality of the audio available

In detail, we mean the following:

  • Availability – We will discuss later how your own voice fits into news feature production, but a basic rule is if you have recordings of people speaking and the audio quality is acceptable, let them speak rather than you try to report what they said. If the audio is not available, you may have to consider other options, such as voicing what they said. This can be especially useful in features involving, for example, court cases where recording is not allowed.
  • Interviews – Will you need to interview people. Obviously face-to-face interviews using a good quality recording device is the best technical option, but sometimes this is just not possible, so interviews over the phone or the Internet can be a good alternative and may be quicker. Whether you use your questions in the final feature or edit them out to leave just the responses will be discussed later in this chapter. If the issue is one with a high public profile, consider doing a vox pop, short street interviews of several ordinary people. For more on vox pops see Chapter 22 and Chapter 23 on vox pops for radio and television.
  • How vital – One factor affecting your decision about who to interview or how much effort to put into getting audio will be how important is it to your final feature. Making a news feature can be very time consuming and resource intensive, so sometimes you have to decide not to pursue some angles or people. But if a particular person is really important, you might want to make an extra effort to get their voice. For example, you could cover the airline crash without interviewing survivors but if the captain pulled of a “miraculous” landing, then you really should try to get their voice describing how they did it.
  • How good are the speakers – Not everyone involved in a significant issue or event will be an interesting speaker, fluent or comfortable talking into a microphone. If they are really bad, you might be able to find someone just as knowledgeable but a better speaker. But sometimes you have to use the person who knows the most or is available. In these cases, use the skills you’ve learned in Chapters 16 and 17 to put them at ease, draw out the information you need or get them to speak about their true feelings. If the outcome is still not good but you must use their voice, keep the grabs short. It is better to have three separate short extracts than one long, poor quality grab.
  • Technical quality – As mentioned already, you should try to get sound and interviews with good technical quality, where all the words are easy to understand and there are no noticeable echoes or extraneous noises. This is preferable for your listeners’ sake. (In television, you can sometimes correct audio defects by using closed captions or subtitles.)

Problems usually arise when trying to record voices over telephones or by VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol), using apps such as Skype, WhatsApp, FaceTime and Viber. VOIP in particular can deliver distorted sounds. Video chat apps such as Skype, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp Video and FaceTime are usually not good quality by broadcast standards but, in the absence of anything better, they can be used for television interviews, depending on how important the actual content is.

The secret again is, if you have to use poor quality connections to download audio-visual material or conduct interviews, keep the clips short. As an extra precaution, you might want to introduce the grab by briefly mentioning what the interviewee is going to say and then briefly precis what they said afterwards in a back announcement. See Chapter 48 for more.

For example, if the audio quality is poor, you might have:

Narrator: “Pilot Dan Ho said he went strangely calm just before the crash.”

Dan Ho:   “Everything in the cockpit went silent. No engines. No voices. It was strange. I felt so calm I knew I could do anything.”

Narrator: “With no sound and feeling strangely calm, Dan Ho did so something special. He saved the lives of all 235 passengers and crew by …”

Again, if the audio quality is good, there is no usually no need for such repetition, which can waste valuable airtime.

Sound effects
Sound effects (often shortened to FX) can be used to add reality and drama to a radio or television news feature. In television, additional vision does the same thing. They can be recorded live at the scene of the event or taken from a sound or vision library, either in your news organisation or obtained online. Sound effects are usually free of copyright restrictions, though some more complicated ones or rare ones from major events might require you to seek permission before using. A quick check on the Internet should reveal which ones require copyright clearance.

When using a sound effect, play enough of it for the listener to hear and understand what it is. A one-second noise will be just that. With a violent FX such as a bomb exploding, there is usually also sound afterwards, maybe a few seconds later as people realise what has happened and start to react, shout, scream etc. Their reactions can be as powerful as the sound of the explosion itself. If you use an emotionally powerful FX, allow a slightly longer pause before continuing your feature, to allow the impact to sink into the listener’s mind.

If you use a FX from a sound library to illustrate a point, make sure it matches the feature. For example, the FX of a crowd at a football match is quite different from the applause of an audience at a concert. Try not to confuse your listeners.

And remember, sound effects taken from a library and special effects (SFX and VFX) created in a television studio or editing suit are not actually part of the event on which you are reporting. They are not exactly fake, but still use them sparingly in news features. On television, it is usual to display a small notice on screen saying it is “File footage”, to make it clear it is not shot at the actual event.

Music
Music can be very powerful, especially in creating or reinforcing moods, whether the listener is aware of it or not.

However, music is not essential when making a news feature. In fact, in some kinds of news features it is not appropriate, for example short hard news reports in news programs.

But music can be a useful element in a longer news feature. It can:

  • Create an atmosphere or tone for the feature.  If the feature is very serious, then serious music can reinforce that atmosphere. If it is a light news feature, then a lighter, more cheerful music can lift the mood.
  • Change pace. Some features may have different moods or atmospheres at different parts of the story. Perhaps it is a feature that starts very sad and dark but eventually comes to a happy ending. Changing music can reinforce this change.
  • Define the start and end of the feature. At the end in particular it can help to wind-down the feature, allowing the listener a time to continue thinking about what they have just heard. In practical terms, if you cannot produce the feature to a specific length (for example if the program producer wants some flexibility in timing of segments), a piece of music at the end can give the program director more chance to fade music out at any time they like.
  • Signal that something is newsworthy. For news features, there is a whole genre of music available, either free or available for a fee. Large news organisations often have a large section in their audio-visual library devoted to such music or they may create their own for special programs or features. An Internet search for “news music” will reveal hundreds of sites where it is available for download, often for free, though you need to check the audio quality on downloading.
  • Occasionally, a well-known song can link or illustrate content within a news feature. Such music is effective because it is associated in most listeners’ minds with the topic you are illustrating or because the lyrics say something about it. For example, two of the best-known songs used in finance features are Abba’s ‘Money, money, money’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’, complete with the ‘ker-ching’ sound of an old cash register. Unfortunately, these have been used so often they have become a cliché for many listeners and can only be used in an ironic way, the producer laughing at themselves.

Whenever you use music, it should be a conscious decision, not an automatic action or a habit.

Narration
Narration is probably the most efficient way of communicating the information you want to include in your news feature. After all, you can write exactly what you want to say and often even read it yourself, as the narrator.

But narration is often not the BEST way of presenting information. As we have discussed above, radio and television are about people – the people to whom things happen, people who are passionate about issues, people who witness events first-hand and your audience who want to share in those most human of circumstances.

With traditional print media you have little choice. You can use either reported speech or quotes. But with radio and television you get to present real people’s voices – what they say as they say it. Nothing could be better than that.

So while the narrator has a place in news features, it should be limited to those circumstances where it is the best method of presenting information. This can be:

  • To tell some essential information in as short a time as possible Sometimes non-broadcasters ‘ramble’ when they speak, which can be annoying to your listeners and viewers if it happens too often or goes on too long. So sometimes you are better narrating that information and get your talent to talk of the more interesting or emotional elements.
  • In television, every second is precious so the narrator can give concise information in as short a time as possible. And he or she can speak over the vision, either giving facts around it (e.g. “Three days of continuous bombardment had left the streets of Aleppo littered with rubble and bodies.”) or moving the story on while viewers watch footage (e.g. “The war in Syria is entering its fifth year, with no end in sight.”)
  • Because you cannot get the audio. Sometimes you will not be able to get some relevant audio or a person’s voice, perhaps because they’re dead or otherwise unavailable. In such circumstances you can either get someone like an actor the ‘voice’ their words or read them yourself. If you do get words voiced, you must tell your listeners this before you do it, preferably at the start of the feature. If your news feature is about an event that happened before voice recording was invented, you may have no choice.
  • To identify speakers or sounds. In television you can do this with captions, but on radio you have to do this yourself, usually the first time someone new speaks or to distinguish one speaker from another. There is a radio format which does not use a narrator at all – only the voices of the talent. In this case the talent introduces themselves in a form agreed at the start of your recording. Record them stating their name, profession and maybe why they are speaking, then you can put this grab in front of the first time they speak. A warning though: This is an unusual way to structure a feature so you should not do it too often, only when the format really benefits from having back-to-back talent, maybe several people describing one event or issue from different, personal perspectives.
  • The narrator is an element in the event or issue themselves. Sometimes you will be fortunate enough to find a person who knows the event or issue better than anyone else. For example, you might find a historian who is both knowledgeable about the historic event your feature is memorialising and is also an exceptional speaker. In such a case, you might want them to script and narrate the feature, with you as producer. Or they could be a poet in a feature on poetry who can both narrate and read extracts in a distinctive and pleasing voice.

Voiceover
The voiceover is a special kind of narration, literally a voice that is recorded over either another voice or over vision in television documentaries.

Unlike ordinary narration, the voiceover provides information that the other voice or the vision cannot. For example, when the original voice is in a language other than your own, you can voice-over with a translation, often read by a voice talent reading from the translated script. In television, a voice-over on vision is often used to add facts or opinions that give extra depth to the story being told at that point, again usually spoken by a third person, i.e. not the narrator or the original talent’s voice. NOTE: In some countries, voice-over is used for any voice laid over vision, including the reporter’s voice or the narrator’s.

Practical tips on voice-overs for multilingual audio: Voice-overs have a special use when the talent in a radio or television report is speaking a language other than your own (the language of your program). Sometimes called ‘overdubbing’, it is speaking or recording one sound or voice over another which is played more quietly but can still be heard.

For example, if you are broadcasting in English but your talent speaks only Creole, you can translate their words and speak them in English over the talent’s voice. You can either speak the English version yourself or, better still, get someone else – maybe a colleague of the same gender as the talent – to speak them for you, to indicate that the voice-over is a translation, not part of the narration. Using another voice also has the benefit of enriching to the texture of the feature. In the recording and editing studio, the steps of the example above are:

  1. Select the grab you want of the talent in Creole.
  2. Make a note of how long that section is.
  3. Translate it so your English script will be a few seconds shorter than the Creole grab.
  4. Record your English translation over the Creole original. You can do this in two ways. Either:
  5. Re-record the Creole grabs, fading them down to about 25% level after two-to-three seconds while you record the English translations over it and then bring the Creole audio up to 100% level for the last couple of seconds. Or
  6. Multitrack the Creole segment and the English voice-over through your editing software, adjusting the levels of each element before saving the sound file.

NOTE: You can either do the voice-overs on each grab and then edit the whole section into your feature or edit the whole feature then do the voice-overs as they occur. Your choice will largely depend on your recording and editing facilities.

While we prefer to hear some of the original voice played at the end of the grab – that is, the last few words of Creole faded up after the voice-over ends - some producers prefer not to fade the talent up again, but run the voice-over translation right up to the end of the grab. They believe this makes it sound more naturalistic, i.e. that the voice-over seems to be live, when the translator will obviously not know in advance what the talent is about to say at the end of their final sentence.

^^back to the top

Resources needed

News features usually require more resources than everyday broadcast news, if only because they are longer and usually more complicated to produce. Very few of us will ever get all the resources we would like when making a news feature, so we need to make decisions about resources during the planning phase and then monitor them – and adjust them if necessary – as production progresses. For example, we may want to make a news feature about space flight, but if we don’t have the time and funds to travel to a space flight centre, we will have to review our aim and modify our production.

The kind of resources that will probably effect a news feature production include:

  • Time
  • Budget
  • Production crew
  • Talent
  • Studios and editing suites
  • Seasons and weather
  • Travel
  • Permissions and cooperation.
  • Research facilities

Looking at them in order:

  • Time. This is normally set by the person asking you to produce the news feature. Plan to produce your feature well before the on-air deadline. As journalists and producers we’re all used to hitting deadlines with minutes to spare, but try bringing your deadline forward a few days or a week before the scheduled date, just so you can add those finishing touches that can turn a good feature into a great one. Completing your feature early will also give other people in your organisation time to hear it and contribute if appropriate. For example, your editor might want to suggest some improvements or your organisation’s lawyer might need to listen to and advise on any legally risky matters.
  • Budget: Have you been given a budget? What can you spend your budget on? Does it include staff costs (including yours), travel, purchase of equipment, payment of royalties or copyright fees. With any major project, it is good to draw up a budget in a spreadsheet and list the categories, items, costs and timeframe when money will be spent. Add them all together and add a ‘contingency’ for unforeseen circumstances, something between 5% and 10%. If the organisation does not like ‘contingency’ budgeting, call them ‘Miscellaneous’. If the news feature takes several weeks to make, monitor your budget and adjust your spending – and production – to avoid overspending it.
  • Production crew: Will you be working with other people? You will need to consider things like their salaries and other costs, their availability, what part of the production will they do or take responsibility for, what skills do they have and whether there are any skills you will need to find elsewhere. For example, if your news feature involves several languages, factor in interpreters and translation costs. You should also determine what your role is and what your responsibilities are. Are you the executive producer, producer, reporters, editor and how will you work with other people in your team and organisation?
  • Talent: What talent will be available and how will you work with them? As mentioned earlier, talent is very, very important in making news features. They can make it special or leave it ordinary. Make a list of the people you want to speak to (and record) for the feature. Be realistic. Don’t plan for an interview with the president if you know he or she will never give one. On the other hand, sometimes when you aim high your achieve the unexpected, so the rule should be: Be bold but realistic. Also, depending on how many different people you need to interview, try to get variety – some women and some men, some young and some old, some expert, some ordinary people affected by the issue. As discussed above, consider whether your topic would be improved with a vox pop.
  • Studios and editing suites: If you work within an established station or network, decide how much studio and editing suite time you might need and, if possible, book ahead so you are not disappointed. If you are working on your own or freelance, check that you have sufficient production facilities for recording and editing. And if your news feature is being commissioned by a broadcaster, check with them that your equipment and software is compatible and the audio-visual quality you can produce is acceptable to their standards.
  • Seasons and weather: These are often overlooked when planning a complex news feature. While you can roughly guess what a season will be like (so you don’t produce a feature on cross country skiing in midsummer), weather can be less predictable. If your feature involves segments outside, look at weather forecasts as far ahead as possible to choose good times to record outside and when to work in the office or studio.
  • Travel: Travel has costs but it also has production implications. If you’re travelling overseas or within restricted regions, you may have to factor in visas and permits. If you’re travelling in a foreign country that doesn’t speak your language, you may need to arrange for an interpreter or ‘fixer’. And if you are planning to travel during crisis (which may be why you are producing the news feature), be prepared to be flexible and have contingency plans. As the COVID-19 global pandemic has shown, journalists need to be good at risk management and be extremely flexible.
  • Permissions and cooperation: In addition to planning for travel, you may have to solve problems of accessing people and places that are normally out-of-bounds to journalists, for the purposes of research and recording. For example, if your news feature involves your country’s military, you will probably need to seek official approval to enter bases, make recordings or speak to service personnel. Factor this into your time planning and allow extra time in case permissions are slow or something goes wrong. If you cannot get permission, you may have to consider other options for the feature. See Chapters 39 to 41 on investigative reporting.
  • Research facilities: In the days before digital media, journalists and producers had a limited range of places they could go to for research. Most major media organisations had their own libraries or archives (once called the ‘morgue’ in a newspaper), but these are expensive to maintain so many of those that were not digitised were allowed to decay. With the Internet, research is much easier, though journalists must take more care than ever to avoid using false or fake information. If you are producing a news feature requiring historical information, think ahead to whether the research facilities and materials you need are available and where they might be accessed.

^^back to the top

Story arcs

When planning and producing your news feature, you must keep the story arc in mind. The story arc (sometimes called a narrative arc) is a term for the general way in which your final feature will progress – how it will start, develop, change and end – like the arc of a bridge.

While the term ‘story arc’ is used most commonly in extended works such as movies, documentaries and television drama series, it can also be applied to longer news features. Like oral storytelling, a story told without change of tone or pace or emotion can get boring for everyone. In longer features, listeners and viewers need to be kept fascinated so they do not turn away or change channels.

There is no formula to story arcs. Each one will be different. Most are not actually geometric arcs at all, in that they do not start low, build up in the middle and then decline towards the end. Some features will begin with the most dramatic element (to grab the audience’s attention) and then gradually decline in dramatic power towards the end, as the details are being laid before the viewer or listener. Others might build up to a climax at the end. While this is most common in movies, it can occasionally be an effective technique in factual programs. In such cases, it is quite common for the narrator, at various stages, to say something like: “But as we will see later, everything in the house was not normal.”

But mostly, story arcs can rise and fall in tone, pace and emotions several times throughout the feature. Even if you cannot predict these rises and falls when you are planning your treatment, you will probably them begin to emerge during recording and material gathering. And it is something you can work on when editing and scriptwriting, perhaps deciding to cut an interview in two to keep the more exciting part till later or having sections of factual description interspersed with bursts of dramatic audio, maybe even making your edits more frequent to increase the sense of pace as the drama builds to a climax.

If you are interested in reading more about story arcs, this article in The Write Story is useful, though it is mainly about fictional movies and docudramas.

Gripping Storytelling

Story telling is a skill. Just as we have friends and relatives who are good at storytelling, we will all know someone who is terrible at it. They are not bad people, they just have not developed the skills of telling a story well. Journalists MUST be good at storytelling and it helps if you understand how.

There is more information throughout The News Manual chapters, but for now let us concentrate on storytelling in news features for radio and television.

What makes a good story? It is one that is interesting enough to make your listeners or viewers tune in then keep their attention for its duration. Remember, you want each member of your audience to stop whatever else they are doing, to give up a part of their life – which they can never get back – so they can be informed and entertained, so they feel at the end of it that they have spent their time well.

As mentioned earlier, the story-telling process begins with your choice of topic, what talent you use and how you produce your feature – the treatment. We have discussed what makes something newsworthy and interesting, how you choose and use talent and the factors to consider in planning and production.

All good storytellers are in command of their information. They:

  • Know the subject well.
  • Can ‘feel’ the rises and falls in the action, pace and tone.
  • Understand the emotions involved. This is often called ‘empathy’ – putting yourself in the shoes of your main characters (the talent). You do not have to agree with them. In fact, sometimes you may personally disagree very strongly with them. But you have to understand them, what drives and motivates them. A journalist without empathy will struggle to be a good storyteller.

But the magic ingredient – the art of storytelling – is how you make sure your story is having the desired effect on your listeners or viewers. Surely you will only know that after your news feature has gone to air, how did your listeners or viewers react (if at all) or what do the audience survey figures show … though that might be weeks or months after broadcast. Of course, with podcasts and streaming, you will get a quicker response through download numbers, but that too is still after your feature is released, after you can do anything to improve it.

When a person tells a story to a live audience – whether to their friends or to an audience in a theatre – they get instant and constant feedback. They can see when their listeners sit up eagerly or slump back asleep. It seems an impossible conundrum – how to get constant and immediate feedback when you are making something for later.

This is why you must become The Producer in the Audience.

The Producer in the Audience

The Producer in the Audience is not someone else; it is you. Or, rather, it is you imagining yourself sitting in the audience, not knowing what comes next, how the story will develop or – sometimes – not even how it will end.

THIS is probably the most difficult part of being a journalist, certainly being a radio or television producer.

Of course, if you are working in a production team you can get feedback from your colleagues and adjust your work during production, adding or taking away parts, changing pace, language or audio-visual content. But as producer, you still have to make the final decision as the work progresses. It is very wasteful to produce a half-hour feature then have your executive producer or department head tell you it’s wrong.

And if you are working alone or as a freelancer hoping to sell your feature, you may not have colleagues to ask. And don’t rely on comments from your friends or relatives – they will be inclined to overlook faults to avoid hurting your feelings.

So, you must become both Producer AND Audience. This means:

  • Be honest with yourself.
  • Separate the Audience You from the Producer You.
  • Try to see faults.
  • Be prepared to make major changes or even begin again.
  • Try a few different options for a difficult part.
  • Chat to other people to check what they are thinking about the topic, talent etc.

Finally

The difference between an average news feature and a great one is not the effort you put in – it is the EXTRA effort you put in.

^^back to the top

TO SUMMARISE:

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

The Golden Rules for radio and TV news features: Topic, Talent and Treatment

Always remember your audience each step of the way

Become a gripping storyteller

Be the Producer in the Audience

^^back to the top

>>go to next chapter

 
 
Index to Chapter 50
  1. What are features?
  2. Structure of a feature
  3. Subjects for features
  4. Dated features
  5. Undated features
  6. Radio and TV news features
  7. The Three Ts
  8. Practical Steps
  9. Voices and interviews
  10. Sound effects
  11. Music
  12. Narration
  13. Voiceover
  14. Resources needed
  15. Story arcs
  16. Gripping storytelling
  17. The Producer in the Audience
  18. To summarise
Looking for something?

A quick way to find what you're looking for in The News Manual is through the Index. It has more than 900 links to concepts throughout the manuals. Click here:IndexLink

QuickLink to introductions of The News Manual volumes
 
 

Home | About | The Manuals | Exercises | Resources | Links | Contact Us | What's New

Copyright David Ingram and the Peter Henshall Estate 2019. Website by Diopdesign