The Profile and Feature Story – From Roy Peter Clark and Christopher Scanlan’s ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’

by Dalton Cox

What we today know as the human-interest story evolved out of turn-of-the-twentieth-century “yellow journalism.”

“A cynical school of thought would have us believe that journalists are exploiters of their sources, that they ultimately violent their confidence for the sake of an interesting story,” Clark and Scanlan write. The writers here have a different reputation. They are curious, persistent, energetic and empathetic… They honor the privilege of access my room during the lives of their subjects with fairness and honesty thoroughness and courtesy.”

Modern journalists are able to serve an audience best if they are able to be a versatile writer, constructing long and short pieces about news and people, about facts experience, for both newspapers and new media.

Untitled Infographic-11
Infographic by Dalton Cox

Cynthia Gorney won the 1980 ASNE award for her Washington Post article “Dr. Seuss: Wild Orchestrator of Plausible Nonsense for Kids.” Gorney was 26-years-old.

“You have to know five times as much as you’re ever going to use in the story,” Cynthia Gorney said.

Another key to successful journalism is an editor’s faith in his or her report’s ability to eventually produce impeccable writing.

The building blocks of profile writing: detail, observation, telling an antidote, revealing question, testimony of friends and family, biography, history, reading and research.

“You have to read a lot,” Gorney said. “And when you find a writer or you love, you read everything you can get your hands on by that writer.”

Gorney’s profile piece concentrated on the famed writer of children’s books Theodore Seuss Geisel. The article is laden with tremendous detail:

“The drawings, manuscripts, and have formed-doodles of Dr. Seuss (who did not officially become a doctor until 1956, when Dartmouth College made him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters), are kept in locked stacks of the Special Collections division of the UCLA library,” Gorney writes.

Cynthia Gorney
Cynthia Gorney

Saul Pett was a special correspondent for the Associated Press when he won the 1981 ASNE award for his profile “Koch Grabs Big Apple and Shakes It.” Pett’s piece profiles New York City mayor Ed Koch, while simultaneously capturing a slice of the cultural climate. Pett demonstrates how a variation of sentence length and structure may set the pace and rhythm for the reader. Furthermore, antidotes need not be sparse; however, any antidote must advance the reader’s understanding of a subject.

Mirta Ojito was a New York Times reporter who returned to Cuba in 1998, after having fled the country 18 years prior. Though she originally returned to report on the visit of Pope John Paul II, the result of her visit was an illustrative features piece that was printed on the front page of the New York Times. Like Gorney, Ojito utilizes a vast amount of detail:

“My home remains practically as we left it, seemingly frozen in time, like much of Cuba today,” Ojito writes. “The Jiménez family now lives in the house. He is a truck driver, just as my father was. They have a 15-year-old son who sleeps on the sofa bed in the living room, just as my sister and I did.”

Mirta Ojito
Mirta Ojito

David Finkel was a reporter for the St. Petersberg (Fla.) Times when he won the 1986 ASNE award for non-deadline writing. His piece “For Lerro, Skyward Nightmare Never Ends” profiles John Lerro, the captain who accidentally steered his tanker into the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, resulting in the deaths of 35 people. David Finkel reminds journalists to practice the unnatural acts of listening. His work reflects the most simple and most noble of goals: “the point is just to tell a nice story.”

Tommy Tomlinson’s 2003 “A Beautiful Find,” written for The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, traces mathematician John Nash’s quest to solve an equation. The article is formatted a series of three questions and answers. Tomlinson accordingly relies on metaphors throughout.

According to Tommy Tomlinson quotations “really have to have some deep insight… or move the story forward in a really compelling way even better and faster than I could.”

Blaine Harden’s “Life, Death, and Corruption on an African mainstream,” published by The Washington Post in 1987, takes readers down a river and through Zaire, illustrating through detail and antidotes the bureaucratic corruption and poverty faced by the African state. Harden reminds writers to spend a tremendous amount of time revising a story.


Other excellent examples of features writing

“A wicked wind takes aim” by Julia Keller for the Chicago Tribune – This weather story won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for features writing. Keller reconstructs in scrupulous detail the events surrounding a 10-second tornado that devastated Utica, Illinois one day in late April.

“The girl in the window” by Lane DeGregory for the St. Petersburg Times of Tampa Bay, Florida – DeGregory provides in striking detail the circumstances of a previously neglected child, who is given a chance for a new life when adopted by a compassionate family.

“Pearls Before Breakfast” by Gene Weingarten for The Washington PostThis Pulitzer-Prize-winning story observes an experiment, as musical prodigy Joshua Bell plays the violin in a Washington D.C. subway station.

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