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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What it means to be a features journalist with a daily newspaper

Commitscion SHREYA DUTT (Class of 2010) was, till recently, a features writer with the Deccan Chronicle in Hyderabad; she was in charge of the tabloid section, Hyderabad Chronicle. Here she gives us the lowdown on the responsibilities of a features journalist.

SHREYA DUTT
THE IDEA
How good you are as a writer depends on your ability to think out of the box; that is what sets apart your story from those on the same or similar subjects in other newspapers. Very honestly, all stories come from the same pool and there is only so much scope for doing something completely original. However, what will make your story stand out or give your readers that extra bit is the way you approach your subject. And that's the best part of being a member of the features team in a daily newspaper.

With features you can think out of the box and adopt a different writing style by avoiding the formulaic route if you feel that is what your story requires. Feature writing, after all, allows you to either stick to the basic rules of writing or to throw those rules out the window. Of course, you can junk the rules only AFTER you have mastered them.

At the Deccan Chronicle, many a time there was healthy competition among my colleagues with regard to who would write a particular story. When the Anna Hazare movement caught on in Hyderabad, I covered it first; later the editor offered the team an opportunity to do another story on Anna, but with the proviso that it should be something different. There were pitches for stories on the innovative methods Hyderabadis were using to support the movement while someone suggested profiling some of the youngest and oldest members. That's when my next idea struck me: a feature on people who had ulterior motives in supporting the movement, people who came to the gatherings to publicise their own organisations, and also people who turned up at the meetings not even knowing what the Lokpal Bill was all about.

The story was approved and DC was flooded with divided opinion. The article made people uncomfortable, sure, but it also made them think. This was one of many stories I wrote that got reactions from readers. I mention this because, contrary to the popular notion that feature writing only deals with "fluff" or light topics, features can be written on serious subjects and in a way that moves the reader to action.

THE CONTACTS

If you need stories, you need contacts. Period. This holds true for a features writer as well as a general news reporter. How you build your network of contacts, I would say, bears testimony to the kind of journalist you are.

THE EDIT MEET

Surely editorial meetings are the most crucial and challenging part of being in the newspaper business. In our case, most ideas were shot down while the best ones were slotted for the next day’s edition. Often, at these meetings, deadlines were advanced. Every day, at these meetings, our work was assessed. A strong heart and suitable armour are strongly advised.

THE OTHER STORY
As a features journalist, you will inevitably have to do research on the subject or subjects of the story you are attempting to write. If you haven’t done enough research, it’s sure to show in your writing. Which is another way of saying there’s no alternative to research. Especially when you have been assigned to do an interview, because then you have to know almost EVERYTHING about the person you’re going to meet. The last thing you want to do is appear ignorant, during the interview, of a small but significant factor that might have turned around this person’s life. This is challenging because there is always that little tick-tock at the back of your head… called the deadline.

However, despite all your preparations, you may find to your surprise that your story has taken a different shape eventually. That’s because, and I am speaking from experience here, people ARE your story and it is what they have to say to you that can either make or break your story. Quite a few of my stories turned out differently from how I had imagined them because of the kind of responses my interviewees gave me.

One last point: It is important to connect with the people you speak with, but it’s also important to have a very good bullshit detector as well (RP Sir is sure to have addressed this issue). While you may be getting some information that, on the surface, seems important, you need to figure out how authentic it is. As a reporter you will meet all sorts of people who are willing to dish the dirt. You have to be able to determine what is fact and what is fiction; this is an art all journalists need to master. And quickly.

THE OTHER JOURNALISTS
As a features journalist you do not work alone. You will need to form a tight unit with your photographer. Even more than your contacts, it is the photographers who sometimes give you a good story idea. Often their nose for news is more efficient than ours at sniffing out juicy items. And, of course, a good photograph adds value and credibility to your story like nothing else.

LET’S DO THE QUARK
As a features writer, and as a member of the Hyderabad Chronicle team, my other responsibility was to lay out the pages. My daily routine as the person in charge of the tabloid section consisted of writing a feature, coordinating with the paper’s national centres on common stories, and laying out a minimum of two pages using QuarkXPress, in addition to looking into the work done by the others, lending an extra hand to speed up the process so as to meet deadlines AND liaising with the editor AND redoing an entire page if necessary depending on the kind of news coming in.

Page-making involved designing the pages, which included choosing pictures and illustrations, and getting approval for the final design. We would get some 15 minutes 20 if the editor was in a good mood and you were exceptionally lucky to wrap up the last page. The page had to be error-free; if not, the penalty was nothing compared with the gentle ruler-taps RP Sir bestowed on us when we goofed up as co-editors of the college newspaper.