Profile and feature stories are some of the more popular stories to readers. They take the reader further into the lives of their heroes, idols and people just like them than they have been before. That is why it is one of the more popular forms of journalistic writing today. Fewer and fewer writers want to write those kinds of stories, which were once known as ‘yellow journalism’, and even fewer can do it well. But, there are still some that can write profiles and feature stories and turn them into beautiful pieces and grab the attention of the reader.
Take for instance the piece Gene Weingarten did for The Washington Post in 2007 on a world-class violinist who played beautiful music in a subway station filled with unheeding commuters as an experiment (http://www.pulitzer.org/works/2008,Feature+Writing). This article would win him the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. Weingarten does a great job of immediately painting a mental picture for the readers, telling them about the “youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play”.
It is not until the fourth paragraph that you learn the entire situation had been set up by The Washington Post and that the musician is actually one of the best violinists in the world playing on one of the most valuable violins ever made. He even asks a local music director what he would think and includes his thoughts on the subject, introducing him by just writing “So, what do you think happened? HANG ON, WE’LL GET YOU SOME EXPERT HELP.” I personally found this quite amusing and helps keep the reader’s interest peaked. He made the entire story very personal and something that we could all relate to, since we have all most likely passed a street performer on the street without a second thought.
One of the more powerful and emotional pieces I found was written by Jim Sheeler of the Rocky Mountain News. In 2005, he write a 12-piece Pulitzer Prize-winning feature on what has to be one of the toughest jobs in America: a Marine major who helps the families of comrades killed in Iraq cope with their loss and honor their sacrifice (http://www.pulitzer.org/works/2006,Feature+Writing). He goes into great detail about the reactions of the family seeing the casket of their fallen loved one for the first time and about the interactions between the Marine and the family. He talks about how the Marines knew each other and how the Marines giving the grave news is only seven days older than the man laying in the coffin. It is all very powerful and really hits the hearts of the readers because it is something we can all relate to.
We can only imagine how hard it must be for those who have the unenviable task of telling someone that their son, brother, husband or good friend has been lost in battle. It also has one of the best closing lines I have read on a story in a long time: “On the tarmac, Katherine Cathey wrapped her arm around the major’s, steadying herself. Then her eyes locked on the cargo hold and the flag-draped casket…Inside the plane, they couldn’t hear the screams.” If that does not hit a note in your heart, then nothing will.
In January of 1998, The Wall Street Journal published a story by Angelo Henderson that told the story a druggist who is driven to violence by his encounters with armed robbery, and illustrating the lasting effects of crime at the same time (http://www.pulitzer.org/works/1999,Feature+Writing). Another powerful piece, it tells the story of a shooting at a small pharmacy in Detroit the year before, along with what led to the shooting and what happened afterwards. He tells the story of the shooter, Mr. Dennis Grehl. He talks about how he was robbed before and how he vowed he would never allow that to happen and to feel that helpless again. He tells of the victim of the shooting, Mr. Tony Williams. He goes into Tony’s life story, talking about how he was always his mother’s favorite child, how he dropped out of high school, how he had many kids with many different women, how he struggled to keep a steady job yet was still able to take care of his family (for the most part) and how he planned to rob the pharmacy that fateful day to get some more money.
He makes the story very personal. He makes you feel as if you knew these people all their lives. He also uses a great mix of long and short paragraphs to keep the reader on their toes, waiting to see what will happen next in the story. You feel for both sides in the story and truly have your heart tugged at, particularly at the last line of the article, when a teenage lady comes into Mr. Grehl’s store to “see who killed my baby’s daddy.”
Another similar story to the one above was written in 2004 by Julia Keller, a reporter for The Chicago Tribune. It was a three-part story on a deadly, ten-second long tornado that ripped through the small town of Utica, Illinois (http://www.pulitzer.org/archives/6902). She just into a brief, yet detailed story behind at least a dozen people who survived the horrific tornado that completely changed a town and all its inhabitants in just ten short seconds. She uses all the correct jargon for the weathermen, firemen and all the townspeople. She is able to paint a clear and beautiful, yet frightening picture of the tornado bearing down on the small town, chasing many into their houses to hide in a corner and just hope that they are not in its direct path.
Keller does an amazing job of seizing the attention of her readers and never letting up, continually leaving the readers at the edge of their seats, hurriedly reading through the lines of text to find out what happens next. It is obvious to see why this won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005.
The final article I looked at was written by Los Angeles Times’ reporter Sonia Nazario, who did a six-piece article on a Honduran boy’s perilous search for his mother who had migrated to the United States (http://www.pulitzer.org/archives/6704). She tells of Enrique, the 17 year old Latino from Mexico looking for his mother, who meets up with a man known as ‘El Tirindaro’ so that he may cross into the United States to continue his search. She writes all the details of how Enrique had to strip down to his underwear and how he could move while the tube was in motion because then the border patrol might hear them. You feel personally connected to Enrique and cheer him on as he crosses the border and finally stands on American soil, just one step closer to finally reuniting with his mother.