America’s Best Newspaper Writing: Features and Profiles

I have to admit, reading a profile on Dr. Seuss is pretty cool.

That’s the kind of thing you get to do with features. That soft news world that exists alongside the everyday berating news cycle is filled with these interesting stories that don’t usually have any timeliness element. They’re unique ideas that aren’t A1 headlines, but they are digger deep into society, appealing to life beyond just politics and current events. And let’s be honest, you don’t really get to read Dr. Seuss much for homework, either. And I’ll be straight: I’m not much of a features writer.

I always contrast myself from my father, a career features writer: in facing any given story, he’s more interested in the people, with the issues underlying that; and I’m more interested in the issues, with the people underlying. I love using characters, but I think they should supplement something bigger, an issue or idea. This is why I’m drawn to news. I think like a classic reporter: what’s important is what’s happening in the world and how it affects people. The people add to the stories, but for the most part people get to make up their own mind about they issues, they should necessarily be part of the story.

Now, that being said, I think there’s almost nothing more effective to the average reader than a profile or feature story. And I definitely love them myself, just in my own way. I don’t want to write them primarily, but a good profile here and there is a lot of fun and a break from the daily grind that is news coverage. It’s fun to put yourself on the sideline of someone else’s life and get to know them well enough that you can present them to the world. Writing a good profile is like taking a good portrait. It’s delicate, beautiful in some way, and almost impossible.

You have to be meticulous. You have to dive into this person’s life and know their mannerisms. You have to know their backstories, their theories and philosophies, their overall worldview. You have to be able to understand them in a way that society doesn’t. It’s your responsibility to create the story about this person, completely accurately, and package it and hand it to the public.

And it’s kind of the extreme sense of reporting in that sense. You’re burdened with a life. This isn’t just some piece of news. It’s not even a few shares in some company’s stock. It’s a person’s life. Their reputation, their world. Profiles are, in some ways, more scary than news.

So I like to thing that the best feature story is somewhere between hard news and soft. I like to take a deep look into life and issues and people, but have it centered around newsworthy subjects.

Related stories:

Into the Woods by Sasha Frere-Jones

A profile on Justin Vernon, front man of Bon Iver. This article is one that’s a really interesting look into a somewhat shadowed figure, with a slightly dark story.

The National Agenda by Nicholas Dawidoff

This falls somewhere between a feature and a profile. It’s written by a novelist as a piece of journalism — a stunningly powerful one that breaks apart The National, looks inside and presents them to the public in all their glory.

The Secret History of Paul Thomas Anderson by John H. Richardson

I have to admit, I’m not really a PTA fan, but I think this article is fantastically-written.

Fears Growing of Mugabe’s Iron Grip Over Zimbabwe by Cecelia W. Dugger

So this is the news feature I’m talking about. It’s brilliantly written, well-reported and deep. It looks at the heart of the issue. It’s not particularly timely, it’s more a meditation on one aspect of the news: war-torn and poverty-stricken Africa, or at least that’s the way it’s portrayed. This delves into life there in a realistic and relatable way.

Tested by LynNell Hancock

This one’s a 5,00o-or-so-word meditation on covering public schools. It’s a deep look into the way journalism takes on education and how the beat reporters view changes with the advent of charter schools. It’s not really a reported story like the rest of these, but more a compiling of information and data that acts as a feature looking into the education coverage.


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