Today, let’s talk about features.
No, not the ones on your face but the ones in the media that, now, feature (forgive the pun) more prominently at ThePrint.
There’s a reason why ‘features’ in journalism refer to a particular kind of writing, otherwise called ‘the long form’. In good feature articles, the writers use their sensory perceptions to tell you a story. So you see the issues at hand in 3D perspective (honestly), you hear many differing opinions, you sniff out the contradictions, the falsehoods, even the truth, smell a rat if there is one, and occasionally, even taste the mangoes off the screen—although, as this story tells you, there is something ‘rotten’ in this year’s crop.
In features, the aim is to tell stories, the stories of our lives; the trick is to tell them well. At ThePrint, there is increasing interest in telling such stories.
What kind of stories? Let me give you a random sampling of features done by ThePrint in the past months. First, there’s a battle raging between Hindus and Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir over the Kashmiri language being written in Devanagari instead of Nastaliq.
While `black magic’ casts its spell on Indians, the villagers of Jewar, Uttar Pradesh, where the next big international airport is coming up, have been cast aside with broken promises. Young male Army aspirants across Rajasthan and Haryana ‘are running for their lives—and out of time’, in a last-ditch effort to join the forces and young Hindu men in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri, torn asunder by communal riots, take inspiration from social media on ‘how to save Hindus’. If there’s a fascinating excavation of the past, 4,200 years ago, to be more precise, in Tamil Nadu, there’s disappointing ‘shrinkflation’ in today’s India as your favourite pack of biscuits just got smaller.
These lengthy articles, usually between 1,500 to 2,000 words appear at ThePrint through the week. Not all top-draw writing or storytelling, but always interesting.
Why do they need to be written? As I said, they’re interesting –hatke – hopefully, well-researched and well-written, and because news reports don’t have the time. News reports are in a hurry to tell you ‘what’ is happening, news reports can’t stop to explain how news plays out on the ground—something each of the above tries to do.
Also, primarily due to television and social media, the news has been reduced to a binary of ‘for’ and ‘against—there is no room for nuance, no ifs and buts—you either believe there is a mandir buried inside Gyanvapi, or you insist it’s a masjid. But if we dig deeper, we understand why both sides may be right and wrong.
That’s what good features do—they unearth what’s often embedded in the news.
India was once obsessed with features
Features are not a new idea—in the 20th century (gosh, does that sound ancient!), news feature magazines were all the rage in India, especially between the 1970s and 1990s, the glory days.
There was India Today, Bombay, Sunday, Imprint, Debonair, Gentleman, to name some, and the Sunday newspaper supplements. Besides, two Sunday newspapers, Sunday Observer and Sunday Mail, used to devote space to political and lifestyle features.
Sadly, the growth and spread of mass media and 24×7 cable TV killed the appetite for long-form writing—and when the internet and social media took over our lives by the middle of this century, a 500-word report was considered long by editors and readers alike.
Ironically, the internet, which had fostered the ascendancy of instant breaking news, has also given feature writing a second wind by offering unlimited space—now, you can bang away on the keyboard till your nails fall off.
And the advantage is that you can write different types of features on any topic from A to Z—news features, lifestyle features, features on culture, sports, social trends, science (‘Pure Science’ at ThePrint is essentially a feature) and even esoteric subjects like ergonomics, or say, hippotherapy.
ThePrint pays attention to detail
Alright, but why does ThePrint, a niche news portal which focuses on news and ‘analyses, opinion on politics, policy, governance, economy, education, defence and culture’, care about features? The simple answer is twofold—because readers want to understand the contested times we live in and because ThePrint is in the business of explaining the news.
It doesn’t always tell you ‘what’ is happening, but it will try to spell out the ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘what next’. At a time when the past weighs so heavily on the present, I’d like to think that at ThePrint, it’s not just about capturing moment by moment updates but capturing the sum of their meaning.
That means to delve deep into a subject, examine granular details, go back in history, perhaps take the road less travelled and discover unique instances of how policy, politics or the news agenda play out on the ground.
That’s another reason why features are a logical step for ThePrint—it invests considerable effort into ground reporting, that too from across the country. So, the stories mentioned above come from different regions and even countries. From Sri Lanka in the south to Jammu & Kashmir in the north, reporters travel far and wide to see how the land lies.
Features are the prologue and the epilogue—they are written to explain what happened before and may happen after an event has unfolded. This is why ThePrint has a section called ‘PastForward’. It will allow you to see last year’s farmer protests’ from the fields of the green revolution or see building fires in Delhi and other cities through the smoke still rising from the 1997 Uphaar cinema tragedy.
At its heart, a good feature requires reporters to reinvent themselves, to go from news reporting to in-depth reporting. For the first five years of my career, I was a feature writer, so I know a little about the degrees of difficulty here—feature writing demands rigour, time and hard work, oodles of patient hearing, sourcing, reading and fact-checking besides meeting people, people and more people. And oh yes, a sense of history wouldn’t be out of place.
But above all, it needs the ability to write well, and combine the lightness of touch with the depth of substance—you shouldn’t be frivolous, but you can’t be boring either. That is the huge challenge –one that ThePrint continues to face.
Reporters are still learning from senior editors to improve their writing; meanwhile, the editing team deserves special mention for the care and attention they lavish on these articles – their efforts have made these articles so much more readable. And we ought to give a hand to the photographers whose images often tell the stories more poignantly than words.
ThePrint’s ‘soft power’
There’s another category of stories for readers whose dil maange more than ThePrint’s super-speciality stuff on strategic affairs, politics, etc.
I call this ThePrint’s ‘soft power’. And it comes from the decision to carry reviews of film, TV and streaming channel shows –not only of the latest Bollywood-Hollywood releases but also from other parts of the country and with a star rating system.
In addition, there are automated agency feeds from ANI and PTI, with loads of reports on entertainment.
Don’t forget the ‘PoV’ section under Opinion where young reporters share their views, often on social, social media or cultural trends, or dear old `Brandma’ who takes a walk down memory lane. In addition, ThePrint carries a column by respected automobile journalist, Kushan Mitra, who writes ‘Dashboard’ , and a qualified dietician, Subhasree Ray, who contributes to the nutrition column.
‘Page Turner’ offers excerpts from the most recent works of fiction and non-fiction in the market. And for sports lovers, ThePrint is now playing catch up, with more coverage of all the games Indians play.
These reports or stories usually attract young readers and are already gaining traction. For example, ThePrint’s review of the film Anek was quoted on Wikipedia, which is not a badge of honour, but it does get read.
Personally, I couldn’t be more delighted since I love cinema, cricket (other sports) and cars. However, a small Doubting Thomas voice inside me asks – are we diluting ThePrint’s essence? Are we spreading ourselves too thin? Are we trying to be all things to all readers rather than a focused, specialised news portal?
Shailaja Bajpai is ThePrint’s Readers’ Editor. Please write in with your views, complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org