The New York Review of Magazines

Anatomy of a Feature Story

By Jeff Dooley

With blogs, news websites and cable TV jumping on and taking ownership of major news stories just seconds after they break, weekly magazines face a new challenge: They must craft creative and original takes on these stories in order to have a place in the conversation. “You either need proprietary sourcing or you need a proprietary idea,” says Robert Kolker, a contributing editor for New York magazine. When editor-in-chief Adam Moss tapped Kolker to cover Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s miracle landing on the Hudson, Kolker knew that the former requirement was out of the question — Sully was saving himself for 60 Minutes. So Kolker, Moss and deputy editor Jon Gluck got to work on creating a new idea. Kolker takes us through the process.

1) Follow the News
“The crash happened on a Thursday, and the three of us met in Adam’s office the following morning at 11. We agreed that the survivor stories were all starting to blend together — it was such a short flight that everyone’s story was pretty much the same. So, we decided we would try to write something about the pilot.”

2) Dig for Details
“Adam said that something on the cable coverage struck him, about how Sully was an old-school pilot, that he was flying by hand, and that that type of flying was a dying art. Jon suggested that we could also include a blow-by-blow, moment-by-moment re-creation of the flight, explaining what went right. So I got cracking on both of those.”

3) Choose Your Angle
“I’d been around the block enough times to know that the group that would talk would be the pilots’ union. I got in touch with two different pilots who had flown the same type of plane and the same route a million times, and I had them take me through things second-by-second. Then I found an article in which an official read through the flight transcript, including time signatures. It wasn’t really noticed in the mass of coverage following the crash, but I used that along with the pilots’ interviews to create the chronological spine of the story. That’s where I got Sully saying, ‘My aircraft,’ which became the headline.”

4) Get Lucky
“The thought was that we could close the story on the following Thursday, so it would come out 10 days after the crash. But then the situation with Caroline Kennedy and New York’s governor, David Paterson, about who was going to be appointed senator, was imploding, and my colleague Chris Smith was preparing a cover story on it that had exclusive material. So they made the decision to bump my story a week. That gave me an extra week to tease out the story even further, and then what happened was that Sully had made himself such a precious resource out there that he was becoming this folk hero, and it became clearer, especially in New York, that this guy had really pulled off a miracle. So they decided to put my story on the cover. It was really just a result of luck and happenstance.”

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