Posted by: lcowie | September 13, 2008

America’s Best Newspaper Writing, Part 2

Profile and Featuring Writing

by Lesley Cowie

The origin of profile and feature writing is quite simple – to appeal to those less interested in the government and business. This style of writing increased newspaper circulation, and therefore has remained a fundamental element of journalism.

For the most part, there are two ways to approach profile and feature writing. Early writers focused on sensational stories, which became known as yellow journalism. The more common approach today is to illustrate the human flaw behind the celebrity.

“Miss USA”

Glenn Yoder’s article on Miss USA, Crystle Stewart, certainly demonstrated the latter approach. The article began with a jokingly cocky attitude from Stewart, which Yoder instantly rebutted with mockery.

He casted Stewart in the light of the stereotypical pageant queen – the ditzy woman hoping to change the world. Yoder ridiculed Stewart’s already-created invention and reality show ideas. He also pointed out Stewart’s many falls, from her politically incorrect stories to her legendary slip and fall at the Miss Universe pageant in Vietnam.

This article illustrates the naivety of pageant queens. Yoder appealed to the audience by portraying Stewart as a friendly, but clueless, role model. The deeper question is whether or not Stewart is an effective role model or just a pretty face for the media, and American men.

“Pearls before breakfast”

Gene Weingarten received the Pulitzer Price in 2008 for his feature article, “Pearls before breakfast.” He enlisted the musical talent of famous violinist Joshua Bell to perform at the L’Enfant Plaza, a Washington, D.C. metro station.

The goal of the stunt was to see if busy commuters would pay attention to the glorious classical music. Weingarten wanted to know if beauty would transcend in an ordinary place at an inconvenient time.

He moved this article along by speaking to the audience in questions and in second-person point of view. He explained each step of the process in detail to enable better understanding of the circumstances. The capitalized phrases indicated a change in thought or procedure.

The stunt analyzed the passing crowd but ultimately assessed Bell’s confidence with his work. Bell stated that he did not know if the passersby would appreciate his presence; accustomed to sold-out shows, Bell knew that ticket holders appreciated his skill.

“Final salute”

Another Pulitzer Price winner, Jim Sheeler, won the award in 2006 for his lengthy portrayal of Sgt. Steve Beck, a Marine casualty assistance calls officer. The account chronicled Beck’s assistance to three families – the Catheys, the Burns, and the Welkes.

Sheeler recalled Beck’s biography and explained the military’s procedures for casualty assistance calls. He focused heavily on the families’ emotions, as well as Beck’s personal feelings for the matter. This approach not only draws the reader to continue through the story for more truth, but also elicit emotion and compassion from the reader.

Each family’s story, including Beck’s biographical information, contained comprehensive detail and explanation. Therefore, the reader felt more involved and struck by the circumstances. The reader was able to envision the events as they happened and feel the same emotions as the people in the story.

This article gave insight into the inner workings of the military, both praises and criticisms, as well as the post-traumatic stress of the soldiers’ families. Few people hear about casualty assistance calls in such detail. Because of its rare content, this feature was extremely emotional and informative.

“Crime scene”

Pulitzer Price recipient Angelo B. Henderson combined two profile stories into one feature story in his 1999 article, “Crime Scene.” He described backgrounds for the main pharmacist, as well as the robber. The dramatic exchange of personalities wrapped this article into one solid feature.

First, Henderson introduced the reader to pharmacist Dennis Grehl. Grehl worked at the same pharmacy for all of his professional life, even after it got robbed. Henderson describes the actions that Grehl took to provide more security to his store.

Halfway through the article, Henderson introduced Anthony Williams, the underprivileged drug dealer. By interviewing Williams’ family for personality traits and anecdotes, Henderson created an almost sympathetic look at Williams.

Eventually the two characters met at the pharmacy. At this point, the reader feels equally drawn to both characters. Henderson’s personality build-up leads to a dramatic conclusion, when Grehl shoots Williams out of self-defense.

Henderson tied all the pieces together in the end by explaining Williams’ true identity as a drug dealer. Once the police released Grehl, the article is set to end in peace. However, Henderson concludes the story with a curveball. These roller-coaster events mimic life as it is.

“She speaks in many voices”

Charlotte Observer columnist Vanessa Willis wrote about a woman with an unusual occupation. Kara Edwards is a professional voice actor, whose work has been featured on Radio Disney and the show “Dragonball Z.”

Willis opened the article with a comical situation to draw the reader into the story. However, this is the typical work that Edwards has. Willis then described how Edwards got her start in this uncommon business.

Edwards recalled moving to Dallas from Lubbock, Texas. She said because the city kids made fun of her accent, Edwards learned how to hide it. Interestingly, many children have difficulty embracing a flaw and turning it into an occupation.

This profile story highlights Edwards’ fortunate path to her profession. Willis uses many direct quotations so that Edwards’ story can be easily relatable to the audience. She also mentions the names of popular television and radio shows to add further familiarity.

Sensational stories and flaw stories still catch readers’ eyes. Profile and feature stories have great range in how attaining these objectives.

The most popular sensationalist approaches follow emotions, whether it is shock or sadness. Readers want to relate to articles. If a writer can use situations that play on the emotions, he or she will be more likely to attract readership.

On the other hand, readers want to learn more about people. This includes personality, occupation, and sometimes flaws. An interest approach to the last option is sarcasm. Readers will then be expected to see through the sarcasm and discover the ultimate truth of the article.

It is important to remember that feature stories should be entertaining, yet honest. They can be somewhat scientific, such as Weingarten’s article, so long as they are presented in an enjoyable format.



  1. Very useful information in your article.

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