Newspaper Writing - The Feature Story
( Originally Published 1911 )
Richard Whiteing, the English novelist, is a strong believer that the art of literature has no greater aid than daily journalism. Speaking once he said :
"Some foolish people have said that daily journalism is killing literature in its highest forms. I say, to the contrary, that the daily paper provides a sort of first course in literature, and I am an immense admirer of the clear, incisive style adopted by the halfpenny press.
"It stimulates curiosity, and when once you have done that in any human being you have started him on the right road. The one deadly thing is apathy. The cow in the field has no note of interrogation. The savage might see an aeroplane and not wonder.
" You can lead a man from the curbstone to the stars when you have once made him curious. A newspaper forces a man to be curious.
"The dear old truth—that's all we want. The truth is so beautiful, so amazingly interesting, so much more wonderful than fiction. Therefore I say that, quite apart from morality, it is policy for a paper to tell the truth."— The Fourth Estate.
The feature story, as the name indicates, has more to do with the development of some interesting feature suggested by the day's news than with the strict presentation of news for its own sake. It is therefore not subject to the same rules that govern the writing of the news story. In-deed it can hardly be said that the feature story is subject to any rules, except those that apply to composition in general. Individuality in style counts for more in the feature story than in the news story that has no other purpose than to inform. Greater freedom is allowed the writer; he is not required, for one thing, to summarize his story in the lead. On the contrary, he may employ the fictional method of working up to a climax. The main end of all feature writing is to make the story interesting. If the writer succeeds in this, it does not much matter on what plan his story is constructed.
WHAT THE FEATURE STORY IS NOT
What the feature story is can be indicated by showing what it is not. In the first place, it is not a skeletonized recital of bare facts. This was amusingly brought out by the New York Sun in reply to the statement of a college professor that the journalism of the future would be " wholly without decorative effects." The Sun gave half a dozen examples of what might be expected from a journalism of that type. Here is the Sun's " Re-port of a Suicide":
The body of a young woman was removed from the river at the foot of 309th street by the harbor police yesterday afternoon.
Pinned to her dress was a note stating that she purposed committing suicide, signed Edith G. Wannaquit.
The young woman was about twenty-six years of age. She was not at all beautiful. She was, in fact, noticeably plain of feature.
Her fingers were not covered with magnificent diamonds. She wore no rings at all. Her clothing was of the most inexpensive material.
There is no mystery whatever connected with the case, nor have the police authorities the slightest idea that she was the victim of foul play.
It is deemed positive from her appearance that she did not belong to some distinguished family of this community. The young woman simply had become tired of living and she jumped into the river — that is all. The case is wholly lacking in any element or feature of a sensational character. The names of the Wannaquit family appear in the city directory but no inquiries were made of any members of the family, the case not being deemed of sufficient importance.
It must not be inferred that the feature story, or any other kind of news story, should distort the facts. The writer in the Sun has merely attempted to reduce to the absurd the theory that journalism should put aside attractiveness in writing for a bare summary of facts. The modern newspaper, while its main purpose is still to in-form, is coming more and more to be a source of entertainment also. It aims to instruct, but in such a manner that the reader will not be bored.
STORIES FOR ENTERTAINMENT
After a day's work normal men and women want to be amused. They are willing to receive instruction, too, but prefer it in the guise of entertainment. Therefore the newspaper incorporates features that may be likened to a vaudeville show. The comic supplement is the most pronounced feature of this kind. Between the two extremes of the comic supplement and the editorial columns are feature stories on an infinite variety of subjects, designed to be instructive, entertaining or simply amusing.
This encroachment of the newspapers on the magazines has opened up a vast new field to the special writer. Signed articles, ranging from beauty talks to sermons on civic ideals, may be found on the editorial pages of many enterprising journals of wide circulation. Perhaps a separate page, bearing some such title as " Magazine Section " or "The Home Readers' Page," may be given to this class of articles. The bulky Sunday issue is made up in large part of similar features. Although this branch of modern newspaper making is distinct from the strict presentation of news and hence does not fall within the scope of this book, it is mentioned here as indicative of the newspaper's aim to furnish attractive reading for all classes.
The feature story, as the news writer uses the term, is usually unsigned and is written for the news columns. It is not, however, what has been called the plain news story — that is, a story told only because of its news value as a recent happening. The feature story must be timely; it should have also an element of attractiveness, through its humor or its pathos, that may be lacking in the story written only to inform.
THE HUMAN-INTEREST STORY
Many feature stories may be classified under what the newspaper man calls human-interest stories. The human-interest story is just what the name implies. It is written not for its immediate value as news, but for its power to affect the reader through his emotions — to make him smile or to arouse his sympathy. Its appeal is directed to the interest that people feel in the intimate doings of other people.
Real human interest cannot be faked. The writer must have seen and understood his story be-fore he can tell it in a way to impress the reader with its truth. Much depends on the manner of the telling. A pathetic story loses its power if it descends to athos ; a humorous story must be some-thing more than mere flippancy. There is special need that the writer choose his words carefully. Perhaps the best prescription for all kinds of human-interest stories, especially those designed to arouse the reader's sympathy, is to write simply and naturally. False emotion is easily detected. Here again the writer should remember that the short, Anglo-Saxon words are the most effective. Ninety-seven per cent. of the words in the Bible are from the Anglo-Saxon. Numerous instances might be cited of human-interest stories that have moved newspaper readers to contribute generously toward the alleviation of suffering. Such stories are not editorials. The writer does not say : This is a pathetic story. He simply tells the facts, and if the story is truly pathetic nothing in the way of " fine writing " is needed or desirable.