In your role as a public affairs writer, you'll be asked to write in a variety of formats. News articles and features are the most common. Before you start, it's important to know how they are similar and how they differ. Review the key differences between a news article and a feature article.
News vs Feature Article
||Provides the facts
||Helps the reader see the meaning behind the facts
||Immediate and will be published soon
||Covers topics from anywhere in the timeline; can be written in connection with a news event or as a so-called evergreen
||Follows the martini glass format
||Follows a rollercoaster format
||Contains a news peg (the most significant element of the news)
||Contains a nutgraph (summary of the lesson to be drawn from the story)
||The tone of the news article is usually dry
||Leaves more room for addressing emotion
||Direct, concise - impress with your reporting, not with language
||Generally given a higher word count, allowing for descriptive language
Because the two purposes are distinctly different, you'll need to be clear on what type of article you're writing before you jump in. Don't mix the structure and flow of one with the other.
Writing a News Article
Think of your news story as an inverted pyramid or a martini glass. Regardless of which outline you follow, your news article always will begin with a direct lead.
A direct lead contains the news peg -- what changed or the reason you wrote this article today -- and usually provides the who, what, when and where of the event. The why and the how can be addressed in the lead, the bridge or the body of the article.
- Who did it? To whom did it happen? Who else was involved?
- What happened, or what event is scheduled to occur?
- When did it happen, or when is it scheduled to occur?
- Where did it happen? Which other places felt the impacts?
The lead tells readers what the story is going to be about and allows them to decide whether to read further. It should start with your most important "W." When writing your lead:
- Figure out the lead emphasis, the most important part of the story.
- Decide where your story is going.
- Set the right tone.
- Make sure the news peg is in the lead, not later in the story.
- Remove cliches or cheesiness from your lead.
Example of a Direct Lead: NORFOLK, Va, -- Four sailors stationed aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise here sustained third-degree burns May 2 when an FA-18 fighter jet engine caught fire.
With the primary facts established, there may be an opportunity for secondary, or "bridge" facts that address the "why." Why did it happen? Why will your reader care? You can use "WAITS" as a helpful acronym to build out this bridge. The bridge should contain at least one of the WAITS elements.
- W: Any of the interrogatives -- probably the why or the how -- not provided or not fully explained in the lead.
- A: Attribution. Give attribution (a source) to any information in the lead, or provide a quote from a prominent person involved in the story.
- I: Identification of the Who in your story. If the impersonal "who" was used in the lead, they need to be identified in the bridge.
- T: Tie-back to a previous, related article.
- S: Secondary facts.
Before you move on to the details of the story, you should include a command message. Quotes are especially valuable in doing this. Use additional space to fill in the details of the story and finish with another command message if available. When it happens, the second quote often comes from a participant rather than a planner, or leader, of an event. News articles (as opposed to features) don't need wrap-ups, so a quote – depending on whether one is available – or a boilerplate statement, e.g., "The mission of Unit X is y," might or might not be used. Boilerplate refers to phrasing that, once negotiated and agreed upon, does not change.
The third paragraph (or fourth, if it takes that long) and the last paragraph are known as "power positions" because the readers are still tuned in at the top and tune back in at the bottom. Quotes placed in middles of articles (and worse, at bottoms of paragraphs) are easily overlooked, i.e., wasted.
The martini glass outline offers chronological order as a way to present facts in the stem. This format is easy to replicate and understand, whereas "order of importance" drives some writers and readers crazy. The martini glass is particularly well-suited to public affairs writing because public affairs professionals are taught to deliver command messages (generally quotes), and the martini glass tells us not only where to put them but where to look for them.
Writing a Feature Article
Imagine you are writing a feature article, and in the middle of your interview, something newsworthy suddenly happens to the people you are writing about. You can immediately pivot and respond to the event by writing a timely news article. The reverse is not true. You cannot take a news article and turn it into a feature by adding some details and calling it a day. Unlike the news article, the purpose of a feature article, or narrative, is to engage the reader’s imagination and emotions, leading them to accept the truth of the focus statement.
Feature articles follow a looping pattern that looks like a roller coaster.
Unlike the news article, which has a direct lead, a feature article has a delayed lead that prepares the reader for the focus statement (aka nutgraph). The body of the story moves the reader along a timeline. It has its own characteristics, including conflict and resolution, and generous use of anecdotes (demonstrating growth or progress) and description.
- Delayed Lead - The delayed lead is frequently an anecdote pulled from the middle of the timeline. It introduces the reader to the person or people who are the subject of the story. It provides the context that readers need to understand the focus statement and the emotional connection to make them want to continue reading the story, which usually starts at the beginning, on the other side of the focus statement.
- Focus Statement aka Nutgraph - The focus statement is a single sentence that encapsulates the values demonstrated by our subject that the commander would endorse. The focus statement is a declaration of the meaning that the writer hopes the reader will extract from the narrative. Don't skimp on the time you allow yourself to write your focus statement. It's critical.
- Body (the main part of the loop) -
- Expectations - What the reader believes will happen based on common experiences.
- Complications - Challenges that force the main character or characters to reassess goals and approaches.
- Reflection - Looking back on how the past influences the present.
- Decision - A pivot point where the main character of the story chooses a new path.
- Struggle - The main character faces inevitable struggles on this new path.
- Achievements - Resolution of the struggle and an outcome that often but not always involves success.
Example of a Delayed Lead: The last thing Piper remembered was the bullet whizzing toward her, the cracking sound of her own bones and the sickening thud of her body hitting the ground. Even as a child, Piper McClean had dreamed of serving her country. She would pick up a long stick, throw it over her shoulder and march. Her first full sentence was a cadence call. The army was her destiny, a family tradition. As she lay in the hospital bed contemplating her future, it appeared as though her dreams were as shattered as her leg.
Vive Le Difference!
A news article may contain storylines worth exploring, but it cannot be turned readily into a feature. The writer must start from scratch with a premise worthy of a feature, recognizing the differences in purpose and structure. Once you appreciate and respect the difference, you'll be better equipped to write each one for maximum effect.