How to get people into profiles
By Don Fry / May 1998
Editors nag and beg their reporters to get people into their stories, often without success. The profile seems like the logical answer, since profiles, by definition, center on a person. Yet many profiles don’t contain any people either. How can that be?
Profiles fail for two reasons: the writer tries to be definitive, and the writer gets swamped by the resume. Actually, that’s the same reason.
The least successful profiles merely rehash the subject’s resume chronologically, and that resume squeezes out the really interesting stuff, even if the reporter has it in the notebook. The writer starts typing the resume paragraphs; runs out of time, energy, and space; and the juicy bits die spiral-bound. The best profiles include two or three interesting aspects of the person, which sometimes contradict and always transcend the resume.
A little coaching can produce a deep profile, but no amount of editing can fatten a thin one.
Tackling the block
To keep the resume from swamping the profile, have the writer first move it entirely into a sidebar or block. I’ve only encountered one writer who managed to duplicate the entire contents of a resume block in the paragraphs beside it.
You can arrange the block chronologically, e.g., birth, education, accomplishments, prizes. Resume blocks can have themed sections, such as education, accomplishments, dreams, books read recently, charges dismissed, etc. The resume sidebar could comprise a series of pictures, with chronological cutlines.
The coaching editor will suggest the block in the assignment stage, and will follow up by asking the reporter to turn in the sidebar before typing or even designing the main bar. A coach might pick up tempting hints in the resume worth further reporting, and might predict graphic and photographic possibilities.
Briefing and debriefing
The writer should explore the paper’s library or online resources before the interview. Gathering the resume in a face-to-face interview wastes the subject’s and the reporter’s precious time. Good interviewers leap off from the resume, rather than drowning in it.
Talking with the writer before the interview can also lead the writer to imagine possible areas to develop, usually by good questions:
* What’s unique about this person?
* How does this person manage to do what she does so fast, so long, so originally?
* Where does this person’s strength or weakness come from?
* What does this person do that the public does not see?
* What does this person really want to accomplish?, etc.
Talking with the writer after the interview, but before the writer starts tying typing helps develop a point for the piece and gives the editor a chance to review the visual possibilities, and negotiate a length and a deadline. The coach who hears nothing but resume details can milk the reporter to see if the potentially interesting material lurks unrecognized in the notebook, again by asking good questions, such as the ones above. If the reporter’s notes prove as as thin as the dialogue, the reporting should continue. Obviously, the conversation will go better if the reporter submits the resume sidebar first.
Sending it back
What happens if you still get a shallow profile after all these efforts? Cynics and good-guy editors usually just edit the mess, and print it. Then once again you’ve told the entire newsroom that dull profiles are good enough. And you’ll get a lot more of them. You get what you print.
So, you send the profile back, and you send the reporter back into the field.
Think you don’t have time for all this hand holding? Well, you have a choice: you can talk a little bit with your reporters in the front end and get good profiles, or you can spend a lot of time in the back end editing and reading bad ones.