“In Defense of the Featurette: A Case Study of Livia Gershon” by Sophia Futrell
Magnificat, April 2022
In the field of journalism, it is often said that “every word counts.” This expression must be taken seriously by those who write featurettes, which are pieces that reside within a strict 300-750-word limit. This specific type of article is often regarded as “filler,” as many publications use them to fill space with brief bits of information or reviews. Featurettes are helpful for readers who can only take a few minutes to read the news, but they are commonly overlooked when compared to longer editorials or in-depth news reports.
At first glance, readers may be under the impression that featurette journalists lack an individual voice– after all, they must let researchers speak for themselves on an article’s subjects of interest to save space. However, writers such as Livia Gershon manage to include nuanced perspectives in even their shortest articles, using fitting word choices and snippets of information to hook readers in a way that authors of longer articles may struggle to do.
According to her biography, Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist who has done work for Vice, Salon, and many other informational and left-leaning news sites in the past. This columnist’s largest projects include contributing to the Good Men Project (a collection of essays following the changing gender roles of men in the 21st century) and an approximately 5,700-word piece for Buzzfeed about Chinatown’s rich and complex history from the perspectives of the area’s immigrant residents. These larger ventures are from five or more years ago, however– now, Gershon spends most of her time writing prolifically for Smithsonian, History, and JSTOR, focusing on scientific studies, historical mysteries, and technological advancements. These shorter pieces are 3 to 5-minute reads which highlight new findings that challenge preconceived notions about historical events and cultural phenomena.
While her current work is more factual than opinionated, Livia Gershon consciously uses clever commentary and detailed data to strengthen the arguments made by the credible researchers she cites from. Readers may not realize it initially, but these decisions that featurette journalists such as Gershon make when writing can truly influence their perceptions of the articles’ topics.
Gershon, like many other featurette journalists, writes on a variety of subjects. “World’s Longest Pedestrian Suspension Bridge Opens in Portugal,” from Smithsonian’s SmartNews section, features a modern tourist attraction, but the writer still includes plenty of historical background on this site. Even though Gershon introduces more factual information in this article, her word choices convey an informal tone: she describes how the bridge “wobbles” and “demands a bit of a head for heights;” and that a local “braved the trip across [it].” These word choices, along with atmospheric photo choices from the editors, allow the reader to picture themselves at this travel destination and stay engaged with the article despite Gershon’s use of heavy data. Keeping the same trend of appealing to this piece’s target audience (tourists), she notes the area that surrounds this bridge and compares it to other similar architecture around the world, as well as other nearby sites to see. When compared to an article from People Magazine about this same topic, Gershon uses the same testimonies from travelers, but gave more information about the structure’s inspiration and location. Overall, Gershon conveys a lighter tone to counteract the amount of heavier information she squeezes into her compact filler articles.
In contrast, since “Medieval Britain’s Cancer Rates Were Ten Times Higher Than Previously Thought” is a scientific piece written for Smithsonian magazine, Gershon begins by introducing previous theories regarding historic cancer rates in Europe for readers unfamiliar with the subject. She then establishes the names and credentials of the new study’s reporters, followed by detailed information about the experimental process that led to their breakthrough. Gershon uses quotes directly from the researchers to build the reader’s trust about the reliability of this study. She also adds commentary on their possible errors but simultaneously opens up discussion for a possible counterargument: “[one archeologist] says it’s possible they actually undercounted the number of cancer cases among the bodies studied [because t]hey did not analyze all of the bones in each skeleton, and… discounted bones with damage that could have been caused either by cancer or other sources.” By doing this, the author acknowledges how scientific studies can still have room for debate and lets the reader decide how to interpret the results.
Not only does she amplify the voices of other archeologists and their reactions to the study, Gershon also contextualizes the broader history of cancer (the disease being traced back to ancient Egypt) using information from a Gizmodo reporter. She also mentions a CNN reporter’s ideas of further studies: “looking at bones before and after smoking became popular in Europe” (later specifying Industrial era-Europe). Additionally, extra commentary surrounding the lack of Renaissance innovations with cancer is offered by a writer for the International Journal of Cancer. Both these testimonies and their accompanying visuals (photos of the excavation site and X-rays of the artifacts) help readers understand the topic even if they are completely foreign to something as obscure as European cancer rates.
Gershon adjusts her tone and style to match the subject matter she is covering. “How to Dress for Dystopia” caught my attention as a reader for its alliterative title and its clever hook: “[s]ome nineteenth-century novelists predicted horrible futures, with perfectly horrible clothing to match.” Gershon opens the article by listing familiar outfits from popular sci-fi franchises, then delves into specific stories with details from a credible literary scholar. She uses evocative word choices to convey different ideas that people from the 19th century had on the future of clothing: “[Progressives]… targeted items like corsets and bustles as vain and impractical. But [traditionalists] mocked or shuddered at women dressing in simpler, more ‘masculine’ attire.” The author summarizes each book she is focusing on and takes on a thoughtful tone to match the scholar’s own words while acknowledging the playful side of this story. Even though this JSTOR article covers a very different, literature-centered topic than what she usually writes, Gershon’s cohesive use of language fits in with the main points that her speakers are trying to explain.
Gershon’s careful attention to tone and subject matter is clear in the article “How The Black Labor Movement Envisioned Liberty.” This is a typical historical piece, but it is one where Gershon uses more connotative language to argue the importance of African American voices during the Reconstruction era. Most notably, she uses words that evoke a sense of patriotism: “envisioned liberty” in the title and “preserving the country’s character” in the heading are some examples of this. She moves from contextualization from a white economist’s perspective to a political scientist’s writings on Black republicans from the same period. The journalist puts emphasis on how ideas of racial equality influenced how Black laborers “imagined a different kind of industrial production: worker owned cooperatives.” Although this article is very brief, Gershon outlines an often-underrepresented historical topic.
In fact, Gershon seems to purposefully write on subjects that have received little mainstream attention, such as Black historical figures whose beliefs were misinterpreted by the Western lens. For example, as seen in her piece “How Sculptor Meta Warrick Challenged White Supremacy,” the journalist uses the actual name of her subject in the titles instead of describing them solely based on race, then paints a full picture of that person’s life. She does not try to exclude information about anyone, no matter how little is known about them by the reader. After all, not knowing who an article is talking about can hook in curious readers who want to find out and educate themselves on the topic.
The average consumers of news don’t tend to think much of reads falling under 750 words, as they are easy to get through and are not viewed as highly as longer opinion- or research-focused articles. However, it is worth bringing attention to Livia Gershon and other featurette writers for managing to fit both nuanced narratives and accurate information into such short pieces. The featurette should be seen as the noble effort it is to amplify underrepresented and unknown topics, not simply “filler” between two larger articles.
“Don’t Look Down! World’s Longest Pedestrian Suspension Bridge Opens in Portugal.” People.com, Meredith Corporation, 3 May 2021, https://people.com/travel/worlds-longest-pedestrian-suspension-bridge-portugal/
Gershon, Livia. “How the Black Labor Movement Envisioned Liberty.” JSTOR, JSTOR Daily, 3 Apr. 2021, daily.jstor.org/how-the-black-labor-movement-envisioned-liberty/.
—. “How to Dress for Dystopia.” JSTOR, JSTOR Daily, 30 Apr. 2021, daily.jstor.org/how-to-dress-for-dystopia/.
—. “How Sculptor Meta Warrick Challenged White Supremacy.” JSTOR, JSTOR Daily, 22 Feb 2021, https://daily.jstor.org/how-sculptor-meta-warrick-challenged-white-supremacy/
—. “Medieval Britain’s Cancer Rates Were Ten Times Higher Than Previously Thought.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 5 May 2021, www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/cancer-was-common-medieval-britain-180977660/.
—. “World’s Longest Pedestrian Suspension Bridge Opens in Portugal.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 3 May 2021, www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/worlds-longest-pedestrian-suspension-bridge-opens-portugal-180977641/.