I completely agree with you that thoughtful feature writing can be more challenging than the classic hard news stories. I don’t think that your preferences necessarily make you more suited for magazine work than for newspaper work, but I do think that you should consider pursuing a feature writing career rather than a hard news career.
Whatever you pursue, the good thing about hard news and features for both papers and magazines is that you can use your creative writing skills for virtually any story. A "featurey" lead is all the rage anyway. I wish I had more concrete advice for you, but perhaps these comments can help you find the right path for you.
You’re aware that you can do the creative feature-writing you love at a newspaper, right? A lot of my newspaper career was in the "Living" section of various newspapers (the section containing the soft news, features, articles on health, technology, recipes, interesting people, etc.). The larger newspapers may give you more latitude for writing features because they have a larger budget and more staff; the smaller ones may have more budget constraints and fewer staffers, leaving you less time for features.
Then again, you may have to chase hard news more at the big papers and have time to get to know your community and write the really up-close-and-personal stories at a smaller local weekly paper. A lot depends on the publication’s resources and editorial emphasis. You’ll need to read a lot of each publication to decide.
One of the great things about being on the newspaper’s features staff is the latitude you have; you have a beat to cover, sure, but you can basically write any feature story you want, with your editor’s approval. It’s a tremendous amount of autonomy.
You also might consider working for one of the news services such as AP, Reuters, etc.; a lot of the wire stories I pulled during my newspaper career were features. I’m not sure how to get started with them, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask your professors how to get started. Many college students "string" for them and establish themselves as reliable journalistic professionals that way.
I also suggest that you look at newspapers that publish the kinds of stories you absolutely love, and target them for your job search. Search for award-winning feature stories online, or perhaps scan journalistic think tanks like the Poynter Institute for ideas. Some papers are large enough that they can and will cut one or two reporters loose from their regular duties for special-assignment reporting – such as an in-depth six-week series on teen drug abuse, etc. Often they’re just seeking awards, but the long-view stories like this really do benefit the community, and it’s a great gig for you if you can land it.
If I had to make a suggestion, I would suggest that you work at a newspaper and freelance for a magazine. My opinion is that it’s harder to break into feature writing at magazines unless you go with the "trade" publications, as I did. I think it would be easier to break into magazine writing full time with more writing credits under your belt.
I’ve worked for a family-owned weekly newspaper (invaluable end-to-end experience for a beginner journalist), an independent daily newspaper owned by a nonprofit association (unusual business set-up, but a solid place to work), and a smallish Gannett chain newspaper. If I had to pick one of the three, I’d go with the independent daily paper; great latitude, good circulation size, decent pay, and a more appreciative attitude toward the employees.
The Gannett location was, for me, a case of employers wanting to wring the last drop of life out of employees. But I would bet you’ll find that the individual newsroom composition, personalities, goals, etc., plays a larger part in your on-the-job happiness than whether you work at a small/large or indy/chain paper.
I agree that the magazine world is much more openly tied to advertising revenue and control of editorial content, although it’s also a quiet but authoritative presence in some newspaper editorial decisions. (I recall wanting to do a simple consumer story comparing prices at local grocery stores — a feature that my paper’s executive editor drastically limited after input from our paper’s very alarmed advertising director.) At the magazine where I edited for a couple of years, the core of the editorial calendar was put together by the advertising director, with only input from the editorial staff and management.
But that reflected the attitude of the company’s publisher and owner, who — like most investors — followed the money trail more closely than anything else. They don’t tell you in journalism school, unfortunately, just how powerful the advertising department is in influencing journalism’s upper management; after all, they are the moneymakers who bring in the advertising dollars, so when they speak, the big bosses listen. It takes tact and a deft hand with office politics to learn to work cooperatively and effectively in such situations – but that’s another topic!
But like I said it is up to you on how you would like to take your caree choice. Just remember to read up on both sides of journalism. You might end up finding out that you would rather stay with one side of the journalism world then with the other side. Try and make sure that you get as much information before you make your choice. You could even try and get a job in jouralism and see what you like most about that side then the other side of journalism.