The development of feature writing in Australia is bound up with two historical strands: the development of the form of newspapers and the development of literary styles.
As Kevin Barnhurst and John Nerone demonstrate in The Form of News (2001), the layout, design and sectional organisation of newspapers is integral to how their content is experienced by readers; these elements have also changed dramatically over time. In the second half of the 19th century, nothing interrupted the long columns of type, classified advertisements ran on the front page and news was found in the middle pages of Sydney newspapers at this time. Illustrations, then photographs, gradually enlivened the grey pages, followed by specifically designed sections for sport, business and ‘women’s interests’. In the first half of the 20th century, (Sir) Keith Murdoch at the Herald and Weekly Times played a key role in shaping tabloid newspapers with a more lively design, aimed not simply at conveying news but dramatising it. The sectionalising of newspapers continued apace throughout the 20th century, with these sections housing much of the feature material published in newspapers. The English newspaper proprietor Lord Northcliffe once said: ‘It is hard news that catches readers. Features hold them.’
In the 19th century, it was common for newspapers to present news in a chronological or narrative form. In the hands of a talented writer, such reports could be vivid, as is shown in George Howe’s 1803 account in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser of ‘The Man They Couldn’t Hang’, and William Jevons’ sociological investigation of The Rocks (and other places) for the Sydney Morning Herald in 1858. However, the literary style of news writing was formal and prolix. The rise of the inverted pyramid approach to writing hard news articles in the second half of the 19th century altered this, with information arranged in descending order of importance.
The inverted pyramid has proved remarkably durable for disseminating information quickly and concisely; even the most recent communication form—the 140 character long Tweet—has been used by journalists since around 2010 to report news as it happens. So ubiquitous has the inverted pyramid become as an approach to writing news that its shortcomings are often overlooked. Hard news focuses on the concrete rather than the abstract, and on action rather than reflection. For journalists with any literary ambition, hard news is a constricting form.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several notable journalists both reported well and wrote well, such as George ‘Chinese’ Morrison, the author of An Australian in China (1895); A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson, best known for his verse but also a distinguished war correspondent; Henry Boote, editor of the Australian Worker between 1914 and 1943; Dame Mary Gilmore, who wrote about the collapse of William Lane’s ‘New Australia’ dream in Paraguay as well as compiling a women’s page for the Worker for many years; and C.E.W. Bean, who wrote On the Wool Track (1910) before becoming Australia’s official war correspondent during World War I.
From the late 19th century, publications such as the Bulletin became a home for writers, whether of journalism, poetry or short stories, while Smith’s Weekly (1919–50) combined peppery exposés with larrikin humour. The generation of journalists who covered World War II found the nature of news reporting restricting for the enormity of what they witnessed, and so channelled their experiences and insights into books that became Australian classics, including: Alan Moorehead’s African Trilogy (1944), Rohan Rivett’s Behind Bamboo (1946) and Osmar White’s Conquerors’ Road (delayed until 1996).
The gradual compartmentalising of newspapers through the 20th century, with sections created for a range of interests and entertainment from travel and food to computers and cars, created space for journalists with more interest in features than in news. Over time, at least a dozen types of feature articles have developed. Colour stories aim to provide the atmosphere or ‘feel’ of an event. They are limited to giving the reader a sense of what it was like to be at the scene. Human-interest stories are primarily about emotion rather than information; where a colour piece describes a scene, a human-interest article tells a story about something—usually dramatic—that has happened to a person and how they have dealt with it.
News features are probably the most common feature in newspapers. They begin with the news of the day and develop it, either by explaining the meaning of the news or by examining its implications. Backgrounders are a variation of the news feature: they recognise that some news events and issues need to be explained to readers, either because they are inherently complicated, because their significance is tied to previous events or because before the news broke no one had heard of a particular person or event.
Where news features revolve around conflict—or at least contention—lifestyle features offer entertaining information about life and how to live it more comfortably. A variation of the lifestyle feature is the travel story, which is usually contained in a travel section. If the commercial impetus for these sections is the advertising revenue they attract, the editorial aim is to provide information for readers planning their next holiday or simply indulging in armchair travel.
There are also general features that are neither tied to the daily news agenda nor to an advertising-driven section. The absence of a news hook means the general feature earns a place in the newspaper through the intrinsic interest of its subject-matter.
Interview pieces are confined to the reporting of an interview, often one with a celebrity. Question and answer is the simplest format, but some interview pieces are written in the style of a standard feature article—even if all they do is write up the interview. A profile article, by comparison, is a mini-biography. It goes beyond the subject’s own words to present information and perspectives from other sources. A hostile profile is written without the subject’s consent. Investigative features, like other investigative journalism, contain revelations, but they are presented as a feature and aim to set the revelation in its context.
Columns have become a highly popular form of feature. Rare in the mid-20th century, columnists had become commonplace in newspapers by the mid-1990s. There are five main varieties of column: service (or advice) columns; gossip columns; pundits who opine on any and every issue; experts with specialist knowledge; and personal columnists who ransack their lives for the reader’s enjoyment. Finally, there are reviews—whether of books, films, theatre, restaurants or video games—where someone critically appraises new art and entertainment.
The longer the feature, the more practitioners need to think about narrative structure and whether they will remain a neutral presence in the background or will foreground their subjectivity. These issues were central in the 1960s and 1970s to what American journalist and social critic Tom Wolfe called the New Journalism.
In Australia, practitioners such as Adele Horin, Craig McGregor and Evan Whitton experimented with this style. In 1967, Whitton spent two weeks living rough in an inner-city dosshouse to give readers of the Melbourne Truth an idea of what it was like to live on the pension. A decade later, McGregor adopted Gay Talese’s method of hanging around with his profile subjects for extended periods when he profiled then ACTU leader Bob Hawke for the National Times. In 1981, Horin took a more sociological approach in amassing a four-part series, again for the National Times, on the sexual revolution and how it affected society. For their pioneering efforts, all three won Walkley Awards.
The wildly idiosyncratic writing styles of Wolfe and Thompson inspired Australian practitioners such as John Birmingham and Paul Toohey, but perhaps more commonly, novelists have turned to feature writing and narrative non-fiction to great—if sometimes controversial—effect. For example, Helen Garner was awarded a Walkley for her poignant Time Australia feature about child abuse, and then won an army of both admirers and detractors for her account of a sexual harassment case, The First Stone (1995), while Chloe Hooper won widespread praise for her re-investigation of an Indigenous man’s death, first for the Monthly, then published a book on the same subject (The Tall Man, 2008).
Online news websites tied to metropolitan daily newspapers and magazines run fewer feature articles than are found in their offline counterparts, perhaps because the experience of reading on a screen is not conducive to enjoying longer articles, though the emergence of tablets may be changing this. The online media offer great scope for multimedia features but this potential has yet to be fully realised, partly because the rise of the 24/7 news cycle has squeezed the time practitioners have to research and write feature articles, and newspapers’ crumbling business model has led to large-scale redundancies in newsrooms. If newspapers appeared to run shorter, less ambitious feature articles in the first decades of the 21st century, this development has, paradoxically, opened up space for a range of niche publications that specialise in longer features, whether in print through the Monthly, Quarterly Essay or the Griffith Review, or online through international sites such as www.longform.org. The 25,000 word Quarterly Essay, in particular, has significantly expanded journalists’ scope to shape public debate, as exemplified in David Marr’s Power Trip about Kevin Rudd, published just weeks before the prime minister was ousted by his own party in 2010; less dramatic but equally effective was Annabel Crabb’s portrait of Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull in Stop at Nothing (2009).
There is recognition, through a new Walkley Award set up in 2005, for journalism written at book length—a prominent example of which is Chris Masters’ Jonestown (2006).
REFs: A. Curthoys and J. Schultz, Journalism (1999); M. Ricketson, Writing Feature Stories (2004).