For many journalism students all around the world, their summer internships are their first foray into real world media outside of the classroom: A chance to see how the industry really ticks. But it can be a struggle for newbies struggling to create those career defining feature and enterprise pieces, when they’re stuck churning out daily news.
CUNY’s Journalism Press associate publisher Victoria Edwards, a graduate school student at CUNY’s journalism school, asked Barry Newman, a 43-year features journalist for the Wall Street Journal, who also wrote the CUNY Journalism Press book “News To Me,” for helpful tips on how interns can find and write features, while juggling their daily workload.
CUNYJP: How do you balance out your feature stories with having to write daily?
Newman: When I started out, I had definite stories. I divided up my day and would ask myself: What’s more important, the story due in two hours or my feature? I would say, I will work on my feature until 3 p.m. then turn around and get rid of my daily stuff. I divided up my time and set aside absolute time to work on my features.
CUNYJP: How do you find your stories for features? How do you know what to write about?
Newman: My experience has been working over years and years and not knowing what I would write about all the time before I got to a place. I would find a neighborhood and ask questions and see if there’s something interesting. It’s a question of looking to see what stories have been covered and finding angles that have not been covered.
In New York, I know there are lots of stories I’m curious about. I’m asking myself why is this? Why is that? It could be the chewing gum on the sidewalks or a type of food I’ve never seen before. It might be something confusing about the sign. I want to know things that are not self-explanatory. I just wonder around the neighborhood until I find something that is off. For example, where do the mounted policemen park their horses during lunchtime? Or, is there anyone producing nonstick chewing gum?
CUNYJP: How do you know when the feature story is completed? How do you keep yourself from just writing and writing and never ending the thing?
Newman: I plan the building blocks for features: several scenes, and then I fill in the blanks by doing background research, asking 10 people the same question until you start hearing the same information. I know the shape of the story has to come as you’re reporting. You feel the story until it makes sense.
For the scenes, going to the place and event and seeing something happen – something that takes place – an accident, anything. It can be a rainstorm that allows you to build the story.
CUNYJP: Did you have any specific struggles as a young writer trying to put together these features?
Newman: I struggled a lot until I started realizing there are two ways to do a story: You can know what you want and go directly to it, or you can let it wash over you while being very perceptive – waiting for something interesting to happen – walking on a sidewalk or being on a beach. Keep your eyes open until something happens. No one else will notice it but you – but it’s the spark that makes the story.
CUNYJP: Can you give me an example where you had to wait out a scene to put in your story?
Newman: I went to a comedy club where comediennes couldn’t curse. I had to wait for the moment when they cursed and someone told them to stop. But you can’t command that to happen. There are thousands of variations on that theme. If you want to write a story about the danger of kids getting hurt in football, you have to wait until you see it.
To brush up on your feature writing skills, order Newman’s book “News to Me,” here.