By Matt Holzapfel
There are only so many stories that can be written about the workings of business or the government or the business of government. Eventually, people will say they want more. They want to hear about other people. They want to hear real, riveting stories about the successes and failures of real people. The feature/profile story is often not an easy one to write, it requires lots of background research, interviews, time, and patience. Done right, however, the feature story can change someone’s life for the better, and inform people in ways that no other news article can. The stories presented in this chapter of America’s Best Newspaper Writing are among the top profile and feature stories there are, written by the best journalists for the job.
“Dr. Seuss: Wild Orchestrator of Plausible Nonsense for Kids” by Cynthia Gorney; The Washington Post, May 1979
This profile on the late Theodor Seuss Geisel offers the reader a chance to explore the life of the man who was Dr. Seuss, probably the most influential, impactful, and popular children’s book author of all time. Gorney lets the reader see how Seuss comes up with his ideas, his methods to the madness if you will. Most people only know about Seuss’ extraordinary imagination and writing skills, but what they don’t know is how his worldwide popularity blossomed with his writing career, and how he got many of his ideas, among other things.
“Koch Grabs Big Apple and Shakes It” by Saul Pett; The Associated Press, November 1980
This piece is about the former Mayor of New York City Ed Koch and his obsession with himself. Pett describes how the former mayor thought that he had no weaknesses, and how his everlasting energy did not make up for his lack of leadership and success while in office. Stories like this can sometimes be hard because many people likely have varying views on Koch and his time as mayor, some may have liked him, many probably did not. That is not the point of the story, however. A feature story is about a person, not their friends, and not their critics.
“A Sentimental Journey to la Casa of Childhood” by Mirta Ojito; The New York Times, February 1998
This story is unique because it is written about a place, rather than a person. Ojito writes about her return home to Cuba, and how she remembered her childhood. In a way, her story was almost a feature on her past life, and how she had moved on so much, but still saw so much of herself when she returned home. It is important, in stories like this where the author is writing about something very personal to them, that they stay unbiased without sacrificing any of the essential details of the feature.
“For Lerro, Skyway Nightmare Never End” by David Finkel; St. Petersburg Times, May 1985
Using blunt, straight-forward language, David Finkel brings the story of ship captain John Lerro to light with details and accounts from Lerro himself that tell his story in a new way. It starts with the hours and minutes leading up to boat crashing into the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The story also talks about how Lerro is doing now, how the incident haunts him every day of his life, how he will never forget it. Profile’s like this one that focus on such a serious event are necessary because they often are the first to present the other side of a story in many scenarios. The stories tell it plainly and without remorse, sparing no ever-important detail because that would be unfair to the reader.
“A Beautiful Find” by Tommy Tomlinson; The Charlotte Observer, November 2003
Tommy Tomlinson’s unique approach to profile writing involves the use of questions at the top of each section. He uses these not only to guide his writing but also to make the reader feel as though they are sitting in on an interview between Tomlinson and the subject of his profile, John Swallow. Tomlinson even includes a “bonus question” at the end as if his interview is just another math quiz, which we know from the story Swallow is very good at completing.
“Life, Death, and Corruption on an African Mainstream” by Blaine Harden; The Washington Post, November 1987
This feature story is similar to Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in the way that it comes across as an adventure story, rather than a descriptive piece about life on the Zaire River. Harden even includes some quotes from Conrad’s book in place of first-hand details that he might have gathered during his visit. ‘Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings’ (Conrad) Harden then goes on to support Conrad’s description by describing what he saw, and the parallels between his work and what Conrad wrote 88 years before.
“Ah, What a Day!” by Ken Fuson; The Des Moines Register, March 1995
In perhaps the most obscure feature story every published, Fuson tells the story of a warm Spring day in Iowa using only one long sentence. The author uses semicolons to break up thoughts, even though all of his thoughts are at least loosely related, otherwise they would not belong in the same sentence. In the end, Fuson even makes fun of himself, saying that the people of Iowa have been too busy enjoying the day that they have not had time to stop and take a bread, much like how he has not had time to stop and “begin a new paragraph.”
Other Examples of Profile and Feature Stories:
Donald Trump is Not Going Anywhere by Mark Leibovich; The New York Times; September 2015
Before Donald Trump was elected President, he wanted to make it very clear that he wasn’t just in politics to be some sideshow or to gain more publicity, he was in it for the long haul. Politicians or people who reside in the public spotlight are often popular subjects for feature stories because journalists look for ways to show that celebrities are really human after all through their up-close and personal accounts with them.
The Arc of the LeBron James Story Reaches Its Climax by Marc Tracy; The New York Times; June 2016
Another prime example of unmasking celebrities in the spotlight and telling their story in a different way is with sports stars. Often the public only sees them as millionaire athletes and doesn’t give too much thought to their lives other than that. When LeBron James made his spotlight even bigger by leaving Cleveland for Miami, only to return to Cleveland four years later, many journalists clamored to tell the story of the hometown kid return to “Believeland” to get his city the championship he thought they deserved.
The Healing Power of Video Games by Richard Moss; Polygon; January 2014
The other kind of feature story is one that revolves around a topic or event or what rather than a who. This is somewhat the case in this piece by Richard Moss about how video games helped a teen fight cancer. The story tells of the boy (Steven Gonzalez,12) and how video games changed his life while he was a patient MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Gonzalez and video games are costars in this feature story, a different yet still effective and powerful approach.