Origin of Special Articles. The rise of popular magazines and of magazine sections of daily newspapers during the last thirty years has resulted in a type of writing known as the "special feature article." Such articles, presenting interesting and timely subjects in popular form, are designed to attract a class of readers that were not reached by the older literary periodicals. Editors of newspapers and magazines a generation ago began to realize that there was no lack of interest on the part of the general public in scientific discoveries and inventions, in significant political and social movements, in important persons and events. Magazine articles on these themes, however, had usually been written by specialists who, as a rule, did not attempt to appeal to the "man in the street," but were satisfied to reach a limited circle of well-educated readers.
To create a larger magazine-reading public, editors undertook to develop a popular form and style that would furnish information as attractively as possible.
The perennial appeal of fiction gave them a suggestion for the popularization of facts. The methods of the short story, of the drama, and even of the melodrama, applied to the presentation of general information, provided a means for catching the attention of the casual reader.
Daily newspapers had already discovered the advantage of giving the day's news in a form that could be read rapidly with the maximum degree of interest by the average man and woman. Certain so-called sensational papers had gone a step further in these attempts to give added attractiveness to news and had emphasized its melodramatic aspects. Other papers had seen the value of the "human interest" phases of the day's happenings. It was not surprising, therefore, that Sunday editors of newspapers should undertake to apply to special articles the same methods that had proved successful in the treatment of news.
The product of these efforts at popularization was the special feature article, with its story-like form, its touches of description, its "human interest," its dramatic situations, its character portrayal—all effectively used to furnish information and entertainment for that rapid reader, the "average American." Definition of a Special Article. A special feature article may be defined as a detailed presentation of facts in an interesting form adapted to rapid reading, for the purpose of entertaining or informing the average person. It usually deals with (1) recent news that is of sufficient importance to warrant elaboration; (2) timely or seasonal topics not directly connected with news; or (3) subjects of general interest that have no immediate connection with current events.
Although frequently concerned with news, the special feature article is more than a mere news story. It aims to supplement the bare facts of the news report by giving more detailed information regarding the persons, places, and circumstances that appear in the news columns. News must be published as fast as it develops, with only enough explanatory material to make it intelligible. The special article, written with the perspective afforded by an interval of a few days or weeks, fills in the bare outlines of the hurried news sketch with the life and color that make the picture complete.
The special feature article must not be confused with the type of news story called the "feature," or "human interest," story. The latter undertakes to present minor incidents of the day's news in an entertaining form. Like the important news story, it is published immediately after the incident occurs. Its purpose is to appeal to newspaper readers by bringing out the humorous and pathetic phases of events that have little real news value. It exemplifies, therefore, merely one distinctive form of news report.
The special feature article differs from the older type of magazine article, not so much in subject as in form and style. The most marked difference lies in the fact that it supplements the recognized methods of literary and scientific exposition with the more striking devices of narrative, descriptive, and dramatic writing.
Scope of Feature Articles. The range of subjects for special articles is as wide as human knowledge and experience. Any theme is suitable that can be made interesting to a considerable number of persons. A given topic may make either a local or a general appeal. If interest in it is likely to be limited to persons in the immediate vicinity of the place with which the subject is connected, the article is best adapted to publication in a local newspaper. If the theme is one that appeals to a larger public, the article is adapted to a periodical of general circulation.
Often local material has interest for persons in many other communities, and hence is suitable either for newspapers or for magazines.
Some subjects have a peculiar appeal to persons engaged in a particular occupation or devoted to a particular avocation or amusement. Special articles on these subjects of limited appeal are adapted to agricultural, trade, or other class publications, particularly to such of these periodicals as present their material in a popular rather than a technical manner.
The Newspaper Field. Because of their number and their local character, daily newspapers afford a ready medium for the publication of special articles, or "special feature stories," as they are generally called in newspaper offices. Some newspapers publish these articles from day to day on the editorial page or in other parts of the paper. Many more papers have magazine sections on Saturday or Sunday made up largely of such "stories." Some of these special sections closely resemble regular magazines in form, cover, and general make-up.
The articles published in newspapers come from three sources: (1) syndicates that furnish a number of newspapers in different cities with special articles, illustrations, and other matter, for simultaneous publication; (2) members of the newspaper's staff; that is, reporters, correspondents, editors, or special writers employed for the purpose; (3) so-called "free-lance" writers, professional or amateur, who submit their "stories" to the editor of the magazine section.
Reporters, correspondents, and other regular members of the staff may be assigned to write special feature stories, or may prepare such stories on their own initiative for submission to the editor of the magazine section. In many offices regular members of the staff are paid for special feature stories in addition to their salaries, especially when the subjects are not assigned to them and when the stories are prepared in the writer's own leisure time. Other papers expect their regular staff members to furnish the paper with whatever articles they may write, as a part of the work covered by their salary. If a paper has one or more special feature writers on its staff, it may pay them a fixed salary or may employ them "on space"; that is, pay them at a fixed "space rate" for the number of columns that an article fills when printed.
Newspaper correspondents, who are usually paid at space rates for news stories, may add to their monthly "string," or amount of space, by submitting special feature articles in addition to news. They may also submit articles to other papers that do not compete with their own paper. Ordinarily a newspaper expects a correspondent to give it the opportunity of printing any special feature stories that he may write.
Free-lance writers, who are not regularly employed by newspapers or magazines as staff members, submit articles for the editor's consideration and are paid at space rates. Sometimes a free lance will outline an article in a letter or in personal conference with an editor in order to get his approval before writing it, but, unless the editor knows the writer's work, he is not likely to promise to accept the completed article. To the writer there is an obvious advantage in knowing that the subject as he outlines it is or is not an acceptable one. If an editor likes the work of a free lance, he may suggest subjects for articles, or may even ask him to prepare an article on a given subject. Freelance writers, by selling their work at space rates, can often make more money than they would receive as regular members of a newspaper staff.
For the amateur the newspaper offers an excellent field. First, in every city of any size there is at least one daily newspaper, and almost all these papers publish special feature stories. Second, feature articles on local topics, the material for which is right at the amateur's hand, are sought by most newspapers. Third, newspaper editors are generally less critical of form and style than are magazine editors. With some practice an inexperienced writer may acquire sufficient skill to prepare an acceptable special feature story for publication in a local paper, and even if he is paid little or nothing for it, he will gain experience from seeing his work in print.
The space rate paid for feature articles is usually proportionate to the size of the city in which the newspaper is published. In small cities papers seldom pay more than $1 a column; in larger places the rate is about $3 a column; in still larger ones, $5; and in the largest, from $8 to $10. In general the column rate for special feature stories is the same as that paid for news stories.
What Newspapers Want. Since timeliness is the keynote of the newspaper, current topics, either growing out of the news of the week or anticipating coming events, furnish the subjects for most special feature stories. The news columns from day to day provide room for only concise announcements of such news as a scientific discovery, an invention, the death of an interesting person, a report on social or industrial conditions, proposed legislation, the razing of a landmark, or the dedication of a new building. Such news often arouses the reader's curiosity to know more of the persons, places, and circumstances mentioned. In an effort to satisfy this curiosity, editors of magazine sections print special feature stories based on news.
By anticipating approaching events, an editor is able to supply articles that are timely for a particular issue of his paper. Two classes of subjects that he usually looks forward to in this way are: first, those concerned with local, state, and national anniversaries; and second, those growing out of seasonal occasions, such as holidays, vacations, the opening of schools and colleges, moving days, commencements, the opening of hunting and fishing seasons.
The general policy of a newspaper with regard to special feature stories is the same as its policy concerning news. Both are determined by the character of its circulation. A paper that is read largely by business and professional men provides news and special articles that satisfy such readers. A paper that aims to reach the so-called masses naturally selects news and features that will appeal to them. If a newspaper has a considerable circulation outside the city where it is published, the editors, in framing their policy, cannot afford to overlook their suburban and rural readers. The character of its readers, in a word, determines the character of a paper's special feature stories.
The newspaper is primarily local in character. A city, a state, or at most a comparatively small section of the whole country, is its particular field. Besides the news of its locality, it must, of course, give significant news of the world at large. So, too, in addition to local feature articles, it should furnish special feature stories of a broader scope. This distinctively local character of newspapers differentiates them from magazines of national circulation in the matter of acceptable subjects for special articles.
The frequency of publication of newspapers, as well as their ephemeral character, leads, in many instances, to the choice of comparatively trivial topics for some articles. Merely to give readers entertaining matter with which to occupy their leisure at the end of a day's work or on Sunday, some papers print special feature stories on topics of little or no importance, often written in a light vein. Articles with no more serious purpose than that of helping readers to while away a few spare moments are obviously better adapted to newspapers, which are read rapidly and immediately cast aside, than to periodicals.
The sensationalism that characterizes the policy of some newspapers affects alike their news columns and their magazine sections. Gossip, scandal, and crime lend themselves to melodramatic treatment as readily in special feature articles as in news stories. On the other hand, the relatively few magazines that undertake to attract readers by sensationalism, usually do so by means of short stories and serials rather than by special articles.
All newspapers, in short, use special feature stories on local topics, some papers print trivial ones, and others "play up" sensational material; whereas practically no magazine publishes articles of these types.
Sunday Magazine Sections. The character and scope of special articles for the Sunday magazine section of newspapers have been well summarized by two well-known editors of such sections. Mr. John O'Hara Cosgrove, editor of the New York Sunday World Magazine, and formerly editor of Everybody's Magazine, gives this as his conception of the ideal Sunday magazine section: The real function of the Sunday Magazine, to my thinking, is to present the color and romance of the news, the most authoritative opinions on the issues and events of the day, and to chronicle promptly the developments of science as applied to daily life. In the grind of human intercourse all manner of curious, heroic, delightful things turn up, and for the most part, are dismissed in a passing note.
Behind every such episode are human beings and a story, and these, if fairly and artfully explained, are the very stuff of romance. Into every great city men are drifting daily from the strange and remote places of the world where they have survived perilous hazards and seen rare spectacles. Such adventures are the treasure troves of the skilful reporter. The cross currents and reactions that lead up to any explosion of greed or passion that we call crime are often worth following, not only for their plots, but as proofs of the pain and terror of transgression. Brave deeds or heroic resistances are all too seldom presented in full length in the news, and generously portrayed prove the nobility inherent in every-day life.
The broad domain of the Sunday magazine editor covers all that may be rare and curious or novel in the arts and sciences, in music and verse, in religion and the occult, on the stage and in sport.
Achievements and controversies are ever culminating in these diverse fields, and the men and women actors therein make admirable subjects for his pages. Provided the editor has at his disposal skilled writers who have the fine arts of vivid and simple exposition and of the brief personal sketch, there is nothing of human interest that may not be presented.
The ideal Sunday magazine, as Mr. Frederick Boyd Stevenson, Sunday editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, sees it, he describes thus: The new Sunday magazine of the newspaper bids fair to be a crisp, sensible review and critique of the live world. It has developed a special line of writers who have learned that a character sketch and interview of a man makes you "see" the man face to face and talk with him yourself. If he has done anything that gives him a place in the news of to-day, he is presented to you. You know the man.
It seems to me that the leading feature of the Sunday magazine should be the biggest topic that will be before the public on the Sunday that the newspaper is printed. It should be written by one who thoroughly knows his subject, who is forceful in style and fluent in words, who can make a picture that his readers can see, and seeing, realize. So every other feature of the Sunday magazine should have points of human interest, either by contact with the news of the day or with men and women who are doing something besides getting divorces and creating scandals.
I firmly believe that the coming Sunday magazine will contain articles of information without being dull or encyclopædic, articles of adventure that are real and timely, articles of scientific discoveries that are authentic, interviews with men and women who have messages, and interpretations of news and analyses of every-day themes, together with sketches, poems, and essays that are not tedious, but have a reason for being printed.
The Magazine Field. The great majority of magazines differ from all newspapers in one important respect—extent of circulation. Popular magazines have a nation-wide distribution. It is only among agricultural and trade journals that we find a distinctly sectional circulation. Some of these publications serve subscribers in only one state or section, and others issue separate state or sectional editions. The best basis of differentiation among magazines, then, is not the extent of circulation but the class of readers appealed to, regardless of the part of the country in which the readers live. The popular general magazine, monthly or weekly, aims to attract readers of all classes in all parts of the United States.
How Magazines Get Material. Magazine articles come from (1) regular members of the magazine's staff, (2) professional or amateur free-lance writers, (3) specialists who write as an avocation, and (4) readers of the periodical who send in material based on their own experience.
The so-called "staff system" of magazine editing, in accordance with which practically all the articles are prepared by writers regularly employed by the publication, has been adopted by a few general magazines and by a number of class periodicals. The staff is recruited from writers and editors on newspapers and other magazines. Its members often perform various editorial duties in addition to writing articles. Publications edited in this way buy few if any articles from outsiders.
Magazines that do not follow the staff system depend largely or entirely on contributors. Every editor daily receives many manuscripts submitted by writers on their own initiative. From these he selects the material best adapted to his publication. Experienced writers often submit an outline of an article to a magazine editor for his approval before preparing the material for publication.
Free-lance writers of reputation may be asked by magazine editors to prepare articles on given subjects.
In addition to material obtained in these ways, articles may be secured from specialists who write as an avocation. An editor generally decides on the subject that he thinks will interest his readers at a given time and then selects the authority best fitted to treat it in a popular way. To induce well-known men to prepare such articles, an editor generally offers them more than he normally pays.
A periodical may encourage its readers to send in short articles giving their own experiences and explaining how to do something in which they have become skilled. These personal experience articles have a reality and "human interest" that make them eminently readable. To obtain them magazines sometimes offer prizes for the best, reserving the privilege of publishing acceptable articles that do not win an award. Aspiring writers should take advantage of these prize contests as a possible means of getting both publication and money for their work.
Opportunities for Unknown Writers. The belief is common among novices that because they are unknown their work is likely to receive little or no consideration from editors. As a matter of fact, in the majority of newspaper and magazine offices all unsolicited manuscripts are considered strictly on their merits. The unknown writer has as good a chance as anybody of having his manuscript accepted, provided that his work has merit comparable with that of more experienced writers.
With the exception of certain newspapers that depend entirely on syndicates for their special features, and of a few popular magazines that have the staff system or that desire only the work of well-known writers, every publication welcomes special articles and short stories by novices. Moreover, editors take pride in the fact that from time to time they "discover" writers whose work later proves popular. They not infrequently tell how they accepted a short story, an article, or some verse by an author of whom they had never before heard, because they were impressed with the quality of it, and how the verdict of their readers confirmed their own judgment.
The relatively small number of amateurs who undertake special articles, compared with the hundreds of thousands who try their hand at short stories, makes the opportunities for special feature writers all the greater. Then, too, the number of professional writers of special articles is comparatively small. This is particularly true of writers who are able effectively to popularize scientific and technical material, as well as of those who can present in popular form the results of social and economic investigations.
It is not too much to say, therefore, that any writer who is willing (1) to study the interests and the needs of newspaper and magazine readers, (2) to gather carefully the material for his articles, and (3) to present it accurately and attractively, may be sure that his work will receive the fullest consideration in almost every newspaper and magazine office in the country, and will be accepted whenever it is found to merit publication.
Women as Feature Writers. Since the essential qualifications just enumerated are not limited to men, women are quite as well fitted to write special feature and magazine articles as are their brothers in the craft. In fact, woman's quicker sympathies and readier emotional response to many phases of life give her a distinct advantage. Her insight into the lives of others, and her intuitive understanding of them, especially fit her to write good "human interest" articles.
Both the delicacy of touch and the chatty, personal tone that characterize the work of many young women, are well suited to numerous topics.
In some fields, such as cooking, sewing, teaching, the care of children, and household management, woman's greater knowledge and understanding of conditions furnish her with topics that are vital to other women and often not uninteresting to men. The entry of women into occupations hitherto open only to men is bringing new experiences to many women, and is furnishing women writers with additional fields from which to draw subjects and material. Ever since the beginning of popular magazines and of special feature writing for newspapers, women writers have proved their ability, but at no time have the opportunities for them been greater than at present.
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