SDX 2002 Awards Gallery
Features go beyond facts
The feature story is the most misunderstood genre in the business. Everyone understands the investigative piece and lauds it as an example of hard-digging and dogged reporting. The drama and pressure of cranking out a breaking story on deadline is part of journalisms lore. But the feature story is often considered to be some kind of distant cousin in the industry because it isnt considered real journalism with a capital J.
On the surface, a feature story often has little to do with the news. When the budget is hashed over in news meetings, feature stories certainly arent considered to be the so-called important story of the day.
And yet, what do readers remember? The feature story.
Decades later, I continue to hear from readers about some of the stories Ive written. Whats the big deal about a door-to-door salesman? Nothing when it comes to news. But the story I wrote on Bill Porter will live on long after I retire from journalism.
No one really remembers the stories on the tax increases or the forest fires, or whatever seemed to be so important at the time they were written.
What resonates with readers is the quiet story. The feature. As the world around us becomes more splintered, the in-depth feature fills a unique, and increasingly important, role in our communities. The feature story has a remarkable power. A rural reader may not care at all about inner-city schools. And a city dweller skims right over a story about a new zoning change that effects agricultural land in the far reaches of the state.
But a well-written feature story has the ability to touch all readers. And they work because these stories have nothing to do with news, but with life itself. The best feature stories touch on universal themes in life, themes that remind us just how similar we are when it comes to hopes and dreams and fears. These stories help readers find meaning in life.
The best of these feature stories are built, not on fancy writing, but on strong, in-depth reporting. They require as much reporting as is needed to pull off a blockbuster investigative piece. The reporter must enter a characters world and then find a story and report it in a way that makes readers not just think about facts, but feel.
Tom Hallman is a reporter for The Oregonian. Hes won SDX awards for feature writing in 1996 and 2000, and he was part of a team that won for non-deadline reporting in 1989.
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Todd C. Frankel, The Herald, Everett, Wash., Day Zero
Not every story has a happy ending. And, as Todd C. Frankel argued to his editors, perhaps the most important ones to tell are the ones that dont have that happily ever after ending to them.
The story of Sebastian Marat is one that didnt end well. The 3-year-old was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, and Frankel wrote about the struggles his family has gone through in the months since: the pain and frustration of waiting for a cure, the difficulty of caring for a dying child, and the stress of growing medical bills. In the end, Sebastian died of the disease, and his parents were left on the brink of bankruptcy with nothing but the memory of their child.
When the reporting for Day Zero began, everyone expected a happy ending. Doctors were optimistic that a stem cell transplant would save the boys life. But when Sebastians condition worsened, editors wondered whether the series should continue. Frankel and photographer Stephanie S. Cordle argued that the story was now even more important that it was a more accurate portrayal of how such cases often turn out.
In the end, a 12-page special section using a single narrative traced the familys difficult journey. Readers responded to the story, calling and writing to the paper with compliments and thanks. They also contributed more than $4,000 to help the family pay for Sebastians grave marker an expense they had been unable to afford themselves.
Judges remarked at the way Frankel captured the familys reality.
Such stories always have the potential to be, and often are, voyeuristic in nature. Readers observe and feel pity for the subjects of the story, but are not necessarily vested in their lives. A common response is: I cant imagine what people do to get through something like that, wrote the judges. Day Zero is what people do. They cry, yet they laugh as well. They are focused on their childs mortality, but distracted by things as mundane as money. They lean on each other, and push each other away. Their lives are in incredible upheaval, yet even that becomes routine.
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The Des Moines (Iowa) Register, Register Photography Staff
Last year, The Des Moines (Iowa) Register decided to attempt something extraordinary.
In a state known for its rural heritage and contributions to agriculture, the paper decided to document every county fair in the state. The overwhelming task of covering 100 fairs in 99 counties many of them taking place at the same time fell to John Gaps III, director of photographer at The Register.
Iowa is a state where 92 of the 99 counties still have more pigs than people living there, he said. It is rich in rural traditions that are annually celebrated in these county-wide spectacles. There is no more authentic rural environment than a county fair.
The paper sent photographers all over the state to cover the different fairs. In addition to taking pictures, photographers were also responsible for writing a brief story from each place they visited. At times, Gaps said, photographers had to visit three different fairs in a day.
Gaps said that staying on top of the whole operation was a difficult task. With so many photographers covering so many fairs in such a short amount of time, careful coordination was essential.
Judges were impressed with the photographers ability to capture unique and interesting images from events that happen every year.
The county fair is a commonplace, routine subject that occurs annually in summer all over, they wrote. Nothing much new as a subject, but depending on the way we look at it, we can capture the photo moments from which we see our todays selves through such a resilient tradition itself. The photos in this series indeed define the core of community that shows what Iowa and Iowans mean even in todays high-tech era.
In his nomination letter, Register Vice President and Editor Paul Anger raised the question of whether the county fairs which celebrate the rural past of the state were a remembrance of a dying era or a commitment to the future role of Iowa:
Are these 20 photos and 80 others we published a record of a vanishing way of life or a promise to future generations that these traditions will endure?
We dont know.
But Clarke County just raised $7 million for a new fairgrounds.
With heartening facts like those, we suspect todays muddy, grinning pig-chasers may one day be the old men and women surveying the scene from shaded county fair benches. And wouldnt Iowa be the richer for it?
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Jodie Morse, TIME magazine
For its Sept. 11 anniversary issue, TIME magazine planned to profile 11 people whose lives were affected by the terrorist attacks of 2001. Reporter Jodie Morse knew from the beginning that she wanted to interview a child, but finding a child as a subject was difficult. Most children dont understand or articulate their emotions clearly enough for a reporter, and most parents arent willing to subject a grieving child to the probing of a reporter.
But then Morse found Hilary Strauch, a 12-year-old who had lost her father the year before. Strauch was different from many girls her age; she was a keen observer of her own ways of dealing with her grief. An only child, Strauch had been very close to her father, making his day-to-day absence that much more difficult to overcome.
The nomination letter for The 9/11 Kid explains why Morses story stood out: Finding the right subject is a key ingredient in any good profile; getting the subject to reveal himself or herself is what makes a great one. Morse spent countless hours with Hilary and her mother, and she captured the true stages of a family working through their grief. Hilarys mother fell to pieces after the attacks, and Hilary became the strong supporter.
Morses story reveals that this was just one of many roles that Hilary felt she had to step into. The girl describes feeling like she should act sad at times when she wasnt. She recalls instances where adults tried in vain to say that right thing to comfort her but only made her feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.
The 9/11 Kid is a model of masterful reporting, wrote the judges. Jodie Morse took a well-worn subject families of those who died in the World Trade Center and made it fresh, using telling anecdotes and quotations gleaned from depth interviews to tell the story of a young girl coming to terms with her fathers death. The result is a story that is beautifully written, moving, and illuminating. Everyone should read it.
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David Furst, WAMU 88.5 FM, Washington, D.C.
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Wendy Feliz Sefsaf, communications services coordinator for WAMU FM in Washington, DC, described the program Metro Connection as a show with a small staff and huge ambitions.
The award-winning report of Metro Connection host and producer David Furst proves this to be an understatement. Furst is the only person on the small staff; though the stations news team contributes feature stories, Furst is the only person who works full-time on the weekly, one-hour newsmagazine program.
Fursts limited resources make his huge ambitions that much more impressive. When the Washington Opera decided to take their show to Japan last year, Furst went with them to document their journey. It was the first time the company had ever toured internationally, and Furst followed them with a microphone every step of the way.
Six weeks of work 15 days of which were on-site reporting in Japan resulted in a one-hour special titled The Washington Opera Goes to Japan. Furst also produced shorter news stories that appeared on the local edition of National Public Radios Morning Edition and All Things Considered. He created a companion Web site to document the tour, which allowed interested listeners to view photos of the tour.
Furst was challenged to build trust with the members of the company so that he could gain a true account of the production from their perspective. While in Japan, he was with them day-in and day-out, and judges said
Fursts ability to get real, candid comments made the story come alive.
His ability to document backstage drama as it unfolds reveals an investment and trust with the crew that must have been built before the big moments happen, one judge wrote. I often felt like the energy of the cast and the big night was captured so well that I could vividly picture the scene and feel the crackle of backstage.
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Jane Pauley, Benita Alexander and David Corvo, Dateline NBC/NBC News, The Thin Man
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Last year, NBC weatherman and well-known personality Al Roker began to rapidly lose weight. He had always been overweight, but suddenly in the span of just seven months he dropped 100 pounds with no explanation as to the cause.
Rumors began to spread about what this famous figure had changed to lose so much weight so quickly, and Roker reluctantly decided to go public with a secret that he had carefully guarded for months: He had undergone a risky surgery after years of a painful struggle with his weight.
Roker shared his story with Jane Pauley, correspondent for Dateline NBC. He gave the Dateline team an incredibly candid interview his decision to undergo surgery.
Since childhood, Roker had battled with poor self image and embarrassment at being overweight. He had tried nearly every diet imaginable, with no success, and he and his wife were both concerned about how his weight might impact his health. Roker even recounted a deathbed promise he made to his father to control his weight.
Rather than simply explaining how Al had lost so much weight, our goal was to convey the years of pain that culminated in his radical decision to have surgery, said Dateline Producer Benita Alexander-Noel. We wanted to show that even someone as successful and well-liked as Al Roker isnt shielded from the humiliation and embarrassment of being overweight. We were also very conscientious about not glamorizing what is an inherently risk procedure.
Rokers honesty about his battle was well-received by viewers. Dateline received about 10,000 letters, most of them thanking him for being so candid.
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Leta Hong Fincher, Kathleen Schrader, Traffic of Tears
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When covering controversial stories in foreign countries, reporters often have to be inventive, and they have to take risks.
In Traffic of Tears, Leta Hong Fincher told a story that Chinese officials did not want told. She covered the cross-border trafficking of people usually women and children who are often forced to work as prostitutes. According to the United Nations, as many as 10,000 Chinese women are abducted and sold into sexual slavery every year. The Congressional Research Service estimates that trafficking in people represents the third largest source of profits for organized crime, after drugs and guns. Fincher went to Yunnan province in China to interview activists fighting against this practice, as well as several victims of it.
Foreign affairs officials monitored Finchers visit, forcing her to sneak out at night after the officials thought she had already gone to bed to line up interviews. She relied on one activist group to help her arrange the interviews, and then she went out on her own to complete all the interviews in a single day. Carrying a digital video camera, Fincher had to work as reporter and videographer.
In a very short time, Fincher had to gain the trust of the people she was interviewing. She documented the heart wrenching stories of victims and their families, and she described the culture behind human trafficking. Viewers experienced the same sense of sad hopelessness as many of the interview subjects, as well as indignation at the tales of abduction, forced prostitution and eventually death.
Back in Washington, video editor Kathleen Schrader took Finchers footage and crafted it into a compelling story. The long-distance relationship worked seamlessly, resulting in an important story that revealed the tragic story of human rights abuse.