how to write a feature (with a strong authorial voice and a point of view)


This post is about Ginia Bellafante’s feature article in The New York Times of December 20, 2019: “How a Banker Helped Save N.Y. (and Why It Will Never Happen Again)”

It is about Felix Rohatyn, who died about a week ago in Manhattan at the age of 91. Felix Rohatyn was an investment banker and diplomat. He played a central role in preventing the bankruptcy of New York City as chairman of the Municipal Assistance Corporation and chief negotiator between the city, its labor unions and its creditors. I recall those dire years well.



The LEAD is very well constructed and leads seamlessly to the main point:

On Tuesday morning at Frank E. Campbell, the Madison Avenue funeral home, Michael R. Bloomberg (former mayor, current presidential candidate) delivered a eulogy in memory of Felix G. Rohatyn — banker, writer, urbanist, savior, mensch.

That Mr. Rohatyn had come to this country as a World War II refugee, that he had forged a singular life in public service in gratitude for what America had given him, that he listened passionately and brought discordant voices together to harmonize in the name of the city’s resurrection — this was the theme of Mr. Bloomberg’s warm appreciation.

Historians have pointed out that there is an obvious through-line, for better or worse, from Mr. Rohatyn’s New York to Bloomberg’s. As a financier who chaired the public-benefits corporation created to rescue the city from insolvency in the 1970s, Mr. Rohatyn’s dominance marked the beginnings of a power shift in New York’s governance in which the wealthiest and their political supplicants assumed more and more control.

And yet the line is hardly as straight as it seems. It bends and curves when it hits the volcano of arrogance that so often characterizes today’s moneyed class and the collective belief that if your portfolio is big enough you are entitled to manage the empire.

These is an OVERARCHING THEME which comes through strongly and clearly:

His vision of political life was the vision of commitment to a cause — in his case, the restoration of the city he loved to a place of economic vitality. He was appointed to the positions he held, elected to none of them.

He had hoped to become secretary of the Treasury at some point, a goal that had eluded him. His was not the agenda of someone who imagined his name would be known to every fourth grader in the year 2150. …

It is fashionable for a certain kind of New Yorker to lament the turn the city has taken over the past 20 years, to become nostalgic for the value system of a prior time. Felix Rohatyn certainly lived well. … But he rejected much of the excess of what came to distinguish New York, beginning in the 1980s — the self-serving habits and misplaced priorities.

The writer, Ms. Bellafante, has taken a possibly dry topic and made it compelling. The writer and her article do not get lost in a reporter’s facts: minutiae of a public finance. The writer and her AUTHORIAL VOICE are as important as the subject. Neither gets lost.

Which is at it should be.

A good writer has the ability to keep his or her eye on the ball so to speak. So that, conversely, a strong and distinctive authorial voice does not – in contradistinction to what I have said above — muddy the waters or detract from the subject. An original and thought provoking point of view is always desirable, so that the reader is enlightened as well as informed. It is a matter of covering all the bases (to use another cliché derived from baseball) while at the same time keeping the piece very focused and adhering to what my high school English teacher used to call the principle of UNITY.

The piece, as is observable in the writing of writers who have mastered the craft, say a lot in a minimum of space. The point is made DIRECTLY AND CONCISELY, very effectively without the point being “buried,” and made obliquely, or without one feeling that one is reading a précis.

I understand that this was not an obituary and was a feature article. An obituary would, of necessity, be more fact-based. The Times has outstanding obituary writers who have made this newspaper item an art form.

Ms. Bellafante excels at feature writing.


— Roger W. Smith

   December 2019

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