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Newspaper Writing - The Editor's Problem

( Originally Published 1911 )

The city editor is often called upon to determine whether a happening shall be treated only as news or shall be expanded into a feature, or human-interest, story. The story of an aged miser's death, for example, may be worth only a paragraph if written for its immediate news value alone. But underlying the surface facts there may be a story of intense human interest — the man's life story. The field of investigation that opens before the news gatherer is fraught with possibilities. It is for him to clothe the skeleton of the story with the flesh and blood of reality. What of the man's early life? Why his passion for hoarding money? What deprivations did he undergo to gratify that passion? These and other questions come trooping to the mind of the reporter in his quest of the story. The mere fact of the miser's death becomes incidental—it is the " peg," as the city editor says, on which the story hangs. What the reporter finds becomes the basis of a human-interest story. A paragraph stating simply that an old man known to his neighbors as a miser had died would mean little to the vast majority of readers, but the story of the man's life, properly told, has the perennial interest of human tragedy.

Willingness to dig for facts goes a long way to-ward success in reporting.


The magazine section of the big Sunday newspaper is made up almost altogether of feature stories. Usually the two outer pages of the section are in colors, and for these pages stories are demanded that lend themselves readily to vivid color treatment. A story unimportant in itself may be spread over an entire page if it is adaptable to a big, colorful illustration. Such would be a story of a new and odd style of quadrille or round dancing or a speculative story about the possibilities of airships. The story itself is subordinated to the pictures. Soberer color pages may be made of the pictures of public buildings, of a city's skyline and the like, with a short explanatory story.

The inside features of the Sunday magazine are seldom written in the style of the news story. The news element merely furnishes the suggestion, and with that as a basis the writer handles the story in its universal application. For instance, a news item telling of the death of a motor car driver in a race may suggest a page story about all the drivers who have met death in a similar manner. Past events as a rule are dealt with only as they affect present or future conditions. Thus a news story about a rich man's death may later be expanded into a page article about the effect of his fortune on the living. The story of a queer will may be the " peg " for a page of speculation about wills in general, with all sorts of other queer wills mentioned.

The magazine section is made ready two or three weeks in advance of the date of publication. This fact must be kept in mind by the writer to avoid inconsistency.


I. A feature story dependent for its value on an original method of treatment. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

There was material for a good moving picture film in the adventure of Alec Jones, a Cape Girardeau visitor, at Union Station Wednesday night. Jones left in such a hurry that he failed to copyright the, lively scenario he created, and anybody who wants it can have it without royalties.

This is about the way it will be described when it gets into the film journals:

JONES AND HIS GRIP.— Jones, from Southeast Missouri, is waiting in Union Station to take a train which leaves in an hour. Every time the train caller makes an announcement, Jones thinks his train is about to leave, and rushes for the door. Just before the first call comes, he is sitting beside a middle-aged woman on one of the round seats surrounding a pillar. She thinks he is sitting too near her and moves with some show of indignation to the other side of the pillar.

She neglects to move her big carpet bag, and in his excitement at the train call, Jones takes the carpet bag instead of his own satchel. He rushes up to the train caller to ask about his train, and that official motions him back to his seat. He sits down beside an old man. In the meantime the middle-aged woman misses her carpet bag, and, finding the satchel in its place, opens it and is horrified to behold a pair of wool socks, a flask and other masculine belongings. She rushes around the waiting room hunting her carpet bag, and reaches Jones just as he is aroused by another train call.

This time he leaves her carpet bag and picks up the heavy suit case belonging to the old man beside him. Again Jones finds out that his train is not ready, and retires to another seat, where a carpenter is dozing with his kit of tools beside him. Just as the old man, seeking his suit case and guided by the woman, reaches him, Jones jumps up again and carries off the carpenter's kit, leaving the old man's suit case in its place. The carpenter, the old man and the woman follow him and a policeman straightens matters out.

Sergeant Meehan of the Union Station police squad says it all happened.

(Note the informality of the introduction. The story aims to amuse the reader— nothing more.

It is a rule of most newspapers that no story shall end with indented matter : hence the last paragraph. The headlines are in keeping with the spirit of the story: " What Happened to Jones? Well, Here's the Yarn —Being the Comedy of Alec From Cape Girardeau and His Various Valises.")

II. A feature story in subject matter and treatment. From the Kansas City Star:

"Eyes made while you wait" is not the sign on the door, but it might be, for that is the way they do it. Artificial eyes are being made, to order in Independence, and it takes only about a half-hour to send a customer out with a "made eye" that scarcely can be distinguished from his natural one.

The laboratory is in a little room on the third floor of the Metropolitan Hotel.

The work is being done in Independence because manufactured gas is available for fuel there. Natural gas is not rich enough, and will not stand the heavy pressure that is necessary in making artificial eyes. From a connection with the city gas pipes, Mr. Kohler passes the gas through a little blowpipe equipped with an apparatus for producing extreme heat.

" Thousands of artificial eyes are kept in stock," said Mr. Merry, " but there is an advantage in making the eye to order. The slightest peculiarity in size, shape or color in the natural eye can be reproduced exactly in the artificial one."

The foundation of the process of manufacture is a glass tube about three-fourths of an inch in diameter. The tubes vary slightly in color and in quality. Under the blowpipe a small portion of a tube is melted off and shaped into an eye. The color is put in by very delicate processes, and even any abnormal peculiarity of the natural eye is reproduced.

A young man was " sitting for an eye " this morning when a visitor called. Kohler, glancing alternately from the natural eye of the customer to the blowpipe and back again, quickly modeled an eye to fill that particular need.

"In many cases they have more than one eye made while they are at it," said Mr. Merry. " Unless handled very carefully, the eyes are easily broken, either by falling or from sudden changes of temperature. Some persons are so careless with their glass eyes— they roll them around as though they were marbles. We had one customer in Kansas City who had twenty-four eyes made a year ago, and who already has broken five of them. But that is not the fault of the maker of the eyes."

(Enough of the story is given here to indicate the method. Tell one thing that has been omitted. Note the absence of technical terms. The writer tells the things about the making of glass eyes that interested him and hence are most likely to interest the general reader. A technical description of the process would fall flat as a newspaper story. The lead — " eyes made while you wait "— piques the reader's curiosity.)

III. A human-interest story told simply and in good taste. From the New York World:

Flowers, the smiles of his fiancée and the commendation of his superiors went with Patrolman George A. Pattison when he limped out of New York Hospital last night on crutches and with one leg gone.

Just two weeks ago Pattison lay on the sidewalk at Forty-second street and Fifth avenue, one leg badly crushed by a surface car, and smiled up at Deputy Commissioner Driscoll when that man patted his shoulder and said, " Too bad ! "

"It's all right, Commissioner," said Pattison. " We must expect such things in our business."

When they heard he was to leave the hospital yesterday his comrades in the West Thirtieth Station determined he should see there were other things in " our business" and that " our business" wasn't entirely the suppression of emotion.

So last night the men of the Tenderloin Station made up a purse. Some of it was set aside to pay for a taxicab for the long trip from the hospital to the policeman's home in New Brighton, Staten Island, and the rest went to Broadway florists. Inspector George McClusky and Captain Samuel McElroy rode in the flower-filled cab to the hospital. There they were met by Miss Mary Lynch, who will be married to the policeman as soon as he is fully recovered.

She led them to Pattison and they told him everybody in the department knew he was a man and that Miss Lynch would never regret her marriage to him. And he needn't worry about his future, for his pay would be the same, though he would be a clerk at Headquarters when he was able to go to work again.

There were tears in Pattison's eyes as he tried to thank everybody for the good feeling displayed. Then he was helped down the stairs. When he found the taxicab was almost filled with flowers he didn't trust himself to speak, but wrung the hands of his friends.

Then, with his fiancée among the flowers, he started for his mother's home, while inspector and captain waved their caps.

IV. Write a feature story of not more than 1,000 words, on any topic that you believe people would like to read about. The following are given as suggestive of the possibilities of a small town: The oldest house in town ; how the streets were named; an interview with the railroad station agent on the people he meets ; if a college town, a story of the students who earn their own expenses; organized charities — get the human side ; hunters' licenses — number — revenue from—women hunters, if any—possibly talks with some of the hunters; birth rate for a given period compared with the death rate ; marriage licenses—minors who have been married — the favorite month for weddings; collections of antiquities; recent improvements, such as street paving; condition of the city jail; the oldest man; the oldest woman; persons in town above the age of 90; women's clubs ; the public schools—how the attendance compares with that of previous years — talks with the superintendent and teachers on their work and plans; former citizens who have become famous; the moving picture shows—how many attend daily — talks with the show managers about the growth of the moving picture business; any unusual industry, such as the making of corn-cob pipes; number of automobiles in town—condition of the country roads — farmers who own automobiles; the public library what books are most read—effect of the seasons on the number and character of the books read; the post office—amount of stamp sales—odd addresses on letters — hardships of rural route carriers. The list might be extended indefinitely.

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