WHAT MAKES A GOOD FEATURE STORY
I don't know what makes a good feature story. I've always assumed that if it was a story that interested or amused me, that it would have the same impact on other people. And it is true that people remember these feature stories. Hardly a day passes that somebody on the street or on an airplane doesn't say, "I'll never forget that story you did about the man who built a yacht in his barnyard, the farmer who always hated farming and decided to go out by sea to see the world." That fellow couldn't tell you what the lead was that day, has no idea what important event might have happened. The story he remembers is the farmer who built a yacht in his barnyard. So those stories do have impact; at least, people remember them for a long time. Sometimes for an absurdly long time! I have had people ask me about stories I did 30 years ago that somehow stuck in their heads. Well, of course, the reason is that it was a story that somehow affected them, it reminded them of something that happened in their own lives, or they were just struck by the eccentricity of the subject, or the oddity of it or the, um, I don't know. I don't know, I've never worked out a definition of a good story, but I know one when I see one. You develop a sixth sense about it, don't you? Soon after I started doing "On the Road" stories, mail started coming in, and eventually a phenomenal amount of mail, about two or three hundred letters a week from people saying, "Oh gosh, if you think those were windmills, you ought to see the windmills here in our town," and I very quickly was able to know, instinctively, which of those stories was going to really be a good one, and which were the stories I could safely forget about. It's uh, just, uh...I'm no help to you here, I don't know what makes a good one.
...I think the feature reporter often walks a very thin line between a truly human story and one that slops over into mushiness or sentimentality. And you have to develop the good taste. And not every reporter has. I have seen some stories on television that made me glance away in embarrassment. I think there's a certain standard of taste that always must be adhered to.
Well, I did try never to do side bars, though. I didn't want to do a story about a man here who's developed a wind generator to beat the energy crisis or anything like that. I wanted "On the Road" stories to be alternative to everything else that was on the news that night. A reminder that even in the midst of great events, in Washington and Sarajevo and Moscow, that out here in Kansas, people still have to get the kids off to school in time, and life goes on. The life that never makes it to the front page. I think there's too much of it on television today to tell you the truth. But in those days, there wasn't any. When I started out, I think it's safe to say that I was the only one regularly doing soft feature stories.
WHAT IS NEWS?
What do I consider news?
Well, in general I think news is the unexpected event, the event that is out of the ordinary. Frequently it also is the more depressing things that have occured. My mother used to say, "Why don't you people ever print any good news?" She even canceled her subscription a couple of times to the newspaper I worked on because she was so upset with the calamities that showed up on page one that sort of ruined her evening, sitting there reading that afternoon's paper. I never did develop a satisfactory answer for my mother. "Mother, you don't want to read on page one that 89 airplanes took off and landed safely out at the airport today. But that one that came in and had a belly landing and the people were lucky to live through the crash, that's news." That old answer to my mother is the best answer I can give you. It's the out-of-the-ordinary event.
WALTER CRONKITE AS A SECRET SOFTIE
I really wouldn't quite categorize what I've done as news. Is it news that a woman sits up here at the head of a branch in Arkansas carving fiddles from curly maple wood? Maybe it is, but I would never argue for its essential nature. Walter Cronkite, who did the news in the evening on CBS during most of my career here, really was opposed to feature stories. He didn't like them. He didn't think it was time to put them on the air. He wanted to do a broadcast of record, and if the fact that the cable cars are still running in San Francisco wasn't on there, that was okay with Walter. But for some reason or another, he did argue that my little stories should be on the air. I think maybe the news was so bad when we started out in the '60s, '68, the first full year of "On the Road" was, as you remember, the year of Martin Luther King's death, Robert Kennedy's murder, and the year the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia and everything that could go wrong in the world, cities were burning. And once or twice a week I'd come along with an innocent little feature story about the last run of the Wabash Cannonball from Detroit to St. Louis. And I think Cronkite felt, though we never really talked about it, that there was some value of reminding people that the whole world wasn't in flames after all. That many people still lived at peace with their neighbors. And perhaps there is a value to that. As I say, I think that the news has gone way too feature-ish in a quest for ratings today.
AMERICA'S SURPRISING VARIETY
Well, it may be news especially to the young. Yeah, America seems on the surface to be homogenized, but if you get off the interstate highway and drive on past the McDonalds, where sure enough, a Big Mac tastes the same in California as it does in Maine, then you find a country that is rich and varied and full of fascinating people. And you find that the Vermonters aren't a bit like Arizonans, they have a different way of looking at things, borne of their background and their land. Accents have kept their individuality. That's surprising, isn't it? You'd think that after all these years of television, we'd all talk like television announcers. But no, Vermonters still talk like Vermonters, and Alabamans like Alabamans. I don't know why that matters so much to me, but it does. I like the variety in accent and outlook. My folks retired to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where the local people are called "hoy toyders" because they talk about the "hoy toyd a comin' in" and we know why they talk that way, they were isolated out on those banks for so long that they never learned to talk like other Southerners. But they have television now, there are bridges to the mainland and they take vacations elsewhere in the country just like we do. But the little children are growing up "hoy toyders" just like their folks. That seems wonderful to me, that they're not talking like the characters on "Sesame Street." They're talking like their mothers and fathers. So a kind of richness goes on into the next generation.
# # #