Practical Magazine Feature Writing/ Documentary Forms
In general the factual content in newspapers, magazines, websites and on TV and radio can be divided into NEWS and FEATURES.

Features can be defined negatively as all the editorial matter in a newspaper, magazine or radio or TV schedule with is FACTUAL but which is not NEWS (in the sense of happened immediately).

It follows that products like monthly magazines (which are not in a position to print any news) must consist almost entirely of feature material. A rolling TV or radio news schedule, on the other hand, selling entirely on having the latest news and therefore has relatively little news. Newspapers, which get beat to breaking stories by the electronic media, have a mixture of news and features. The same is true of scheduled/formatted news shows on radio and TV (eg The Today Programme; Newsnight; Channel Four News) which mix genuine news with mini-features to fill out to the scheduled length.

It is often said of newspapers (and electronic news programmes) that "people come for the news, but stay for the features".

Features are also very important in setting the "tone" for newspapers. Basically the news is the news (particularly when there's a clear news story like the World Trade Center attack) and there is little for the consumer to choose between one title and another.

This all important "differentiation" is achieved by feature material.  For all these reasons the features content of newspapers has increased in recent years - the process of "featurisation" - so that newspapers increasing work like daily magazines aimed at particular markets (editors know that readers will normally get the "hard" news from the BBC the previous evening, so it won't sell the paper the following morning. Note the way in which broadsheet newspapers, in particular, now run feature "puffs" (adverts for articles) above the title. When folded in the newsagents these "puffs" in the "flannel panel" are what potential purchasers see. 

Some differences between news and features...

NEWS                                            FEATURES/ DOCUMENTARIES

Telling                                            Seeing (inc "word pictures" on radio)

Brief/Summary                               Lengthy/ detailed

Aimed at whole audience             Aimed a "niche" sections of the readership

Length varies (importance)            Length fixed by editorial structure/TV radio /news agenda

Defined styles                                Many styles/ generic types

Pictures useful                               Pictures essential/ graphics

Published instantly                        Published according to schedule

Done by staff reporters                  Done by production staff/ freelancers

Event-led ("the news agenda")       Production-led (fitting schedule/structure of mag/newspaper



There is no such thing as "a feature" or "a documentary" as such. The key to feature writing is to understand the various FORMATS such as the confessional interview; the news feature; the consumer review; profiles and investigations and so on.

The definition of these formats varies from journalism school to journalism school and between editors and professional feature-writers (it is more of an art than a science). But the ones discussed on this web are the most common ones.

In many ways SUBJECT MATTER is secondary to the format. Think about a TV schedule. The Parkinson show is a format - a chat show. It is always the a chat show, regardless of who is on it. Likewise the Today programme always has a feature interview at about 8.05am every morning, and they are always treated in the same way. The format/schedule of the programme means there has to be one, otherwise the programme would just be chaos.

Likewise a newspaper will always have a profile on page X; a comment piece on page Y; a news feature over the the first few pages after the proper (more variable) news pages; a horoscope on page Z; a feature interview with a sports star on the cover of the sports supplement and so on. Magazines are even more heavily formatted (advertising is sold to be included next to a particular type of feature).

All of this is also true of the trade press; and specialist consumer magazines. The formats rarely vary, only our old friend THE AGENDA. Sometimes there are hybrid formats - but it is rare for one of them to catch on.

If you want to FREELANCE as a feature writer the first step is to understand the formats used by the title you want to write for; mastering the style of that format (it is not about your own style) and then obtaining the subject matter for that format/section of the newspaper or magazine.

With experience you will be able to spot these formats across a variety of newspapers and magazine, TV and radio shows and see how similar they are. As with most things in journalism the difference between titles is more about the AGENDA than the style and format (which tend to always be the same). So both Bella magazine and the Financial Times might both have a regular PROFILE FORMAT type piece (in the FT it is called "People in the News"). The main difference is that in Bella it would be a TV star and for the FT it would be the chief executive of some company or other.

To understand more read about the different types of feature format described in these pages. Compare the formats to feature articles as they appear in newspapers and magazines until you understand them.

You need to do this before you can get very far with practical work. Practical feature writing, once you understand formats, becomes much less daunting and mainly a matter of researching subject matter suitable for a particular format.

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