Can Features Save Print News?

October 17, 2014 • Media Economics, Specialist Journalism • by

Newspaper industry panics are not new. In the 1990s declining circulations prompted Northwestern University, in the US, to survey 37,000 readers in 100 newspaper markets, to find out why sales were dropping. It found that feature-style writing increased reader satisfaction in a variety of topic areas, such as politics, sports, science, and health. A higher proportion of feature-style stories improved overall brand perception, chief among them readability. Feature content also left readers feeling more satisfied. In short, reader disinterest was the disease. Feature writing was the cure.

It may be time for newspapers to take their medicine. Feature writing, with its emphasis on people over policy and storytelling over summation, is popular with audiences. And feature sections – style, books, movies, are popular with advertisers looking to target a particular audience. Yet media executives and analysts have routinely ignored feature content, which has historically been ghettoized in the back pages. It is the same in academia – the study of feature content is nearly nonexistent. This unfathomable oversight perpetuates the ignorance of how important feature writing has been to audiences, and newspapers’ bottom line, over time. 

Much of what we do know collides with the history of women in newspapers, a history that has noted the complicated ways feature sections employed women and aided women’s rights movements, while simultaneously reinforcing stereotyped visions of women. Early feature sections addressed what male editors perceived to be the chief concerns of women in the World War II-era and beyond: family, fashion, food, and furnishings. While troubling today, the strategy was an early, albeit temporary, success at using features to target readership and advertising. But as early as the 1950s, women’s sections were beginning to break beyond those stereotypes. They tackled issues such as pay inequity, sexual harassment, reproductive rights and violence against women, among others.

By the 1970s, women’s pages transitioned into lifestyles/features pages. The Washington Post replaced its women’s section with the Style section in 1969, and takes credit for paving a new path for feature sections. Style became home to what Post editor Ben Bradlee called “a unique collection of ‘new journalists,’ directly referencing the term adopted by Tom Wolfe (pictured) to describe the generation’s avant-garde journalists who used the techniques of fiction: scenes and extended dialogue, a strong authorial voice, and the use of symbol and metaphor. The success of The Washington Post Style section proved that feature sections were not just news ghettos for marginalized groups; they could be historically significant as well as brand builders. In 1979, the Pulitzer Prize Board created a category for Feature Writing.

The trend toward a greater diversity of feature sections continued. The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, and The Washington Post all added new feature sections in the 1990s and early 2000s. Some prominent journalists, including Jack Hart of the Oregonian, saw narrative style journalism, or feature writing, as an antidote to the inverted pyramid, which typically avoids storytelling and specialises in story endings, meaning it puts the end of the story first in a typical summary lead. This also means readers are given a conclusion without its context, or an explanation of why it matters.  According to a report by the American Society of News Editors, the assumption of knowledge on the part of the reader by newspapers has resulted in alienated audiences, who are left mystified by the very source whose aim is to clarify and illuminate.

The Readership Institute at Northwestern University found that feature-style writing increases reader satisfaction, especially among women. Yet, at the time of the study, just 18 percent of stories in the newspaper were told in feature style. The Poynter Institute has found narrative stories generally outperformed other types of storytelling in communicating facts and helping readers retain information.

But feature content is expensive and disappearing, though no one is keeping track of how much or how fast. Book sections, travel sections, style sections have vanished. Feature writers too. The Chicago Tribune axed at least a half dozen feature staffers on a single day in 2009.

However, some aggressive outlets are returning to features as they fight for readers. Since 2008, the Wall Street Journal’s war on The New York Times has resulted in the creation of WSJ, a luxury lifestyle magazine; weekend sections such as Off Duty; home & garden pages called Mansion, and Greater New York, which features enterprise news and feature storytelling. The paper’s expansion has brought in at least 150 new consumer advertisers who want to advertise against the niche sections.

While there’s ample evidence that good feature stories need to be a part of a newspaper’s daily offerings, features alone cannot save a paper. Newly minted newspaper man Aaron Kushner now represents something of a cautionary tale. He believed newspapers were shortsighted to slash staff and sections when advertising revenue declined. When he bought the Orange County Register in 2012, he promptly loaded the Register with features content to regain lost marketshare. He debuted new or improved sections for living, cars, food, entertainment, society, religion, and a profile section called Everyday Heroes. The bloated budget caused the paper to fall into debt. Recently, Kushner stepped down as publisher of the newspaper, which he stills owns, after laying off and furloughing staff.

Still, feature content seems to be making a comeback in some quarters. Even in the digital world, publishers are recognizing that they can demand more for quality stories. In 2012, the Hearst-owned Houston Chronicle launched a premium website featuring longer content – including enterprise reporting with narrative. The shorter, quick-hit content remained on the free website. The idea of “premium” websites for subscribers has taken hold across the Hearst empire, which issued a buoyant press release at the end of 2013 announcing double-digit growth. While most traffic gravitates to the free site, Hearst believes that subscribers want, and deserve, more.

Readership for many news organizations is skyrocketing – mostly due to digital platforms, the advent of social media, interactivity, and multiple platform experiences, even gaming. But print circulation continues to decline, and with it revenue. Feature writing is one way to target both advertisers and audiences, which papers like the Wall Street Journal are discovering. Again.

 pic credit: Flikr Erin Williamson

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