PROFILE WRITING: "People in the news"
Notes by Chris Horrie
"Man in the news/ Women in the news" (written your voice, but often anonymous). You can find many examples in newspapers, weeklies, trade press, consumer press. Very often pegged to the news agenda for a particular set of readers/listeners.
These are "pen portraits" which concentrate on WHO the subject is (not what they think, especially) and HOW they got to be who they are.
For the popular media there is an aspirational aspect. How is it that somebody as patently ordinary as Geri Halliwell became so rich and famous. Where was she born, where did she go to school, what were the turning points in her career, who helped her, who are her enemies... etc. You don't need to interview her (though you SHOULD interview people who know/knew her). But much is already on the public record and in the press clipping (see here in News Features notes for a lot more on press clippings)
This format is Classic of Sunday newspaper journalism. Like an obituary - strictly factual and NOT based on an interview (in the first place) with the subject.
DO NOT confuse with either "confessional" or "feature interview" (gonzo). Don’t mix styles (you will end up with a dog’s dinner). Sticking to a nice, clean format is the key to success, "do-ability" and simplicity in all feature-writing, including profile writing.
You can study the writing style by reading profiles as done by professional media. They all follow the same sort of structure and often have a feature cartoon/ characature rather than a picture. This underlines the fact that he reader is getting a "portrait" of the subject and not an interview, etc.
Assemble press clips. Rough out the life story as it already known.
Check your word length. In features it is always essential to write to an exact length; edit sound to an exact time. These are given in advance, since in features you are filling up a pre-determined editorial "mould" for the newspaper or magazine. In news there is more flexibility on length. Length for news will depend on the importance of the story to readers. The FIXED LENGTH means you can use a more sophisticated story structure and not just the pyramid "cut from the bottom" style needed for news.
From the clips track down associates who are mentioned - schoolfreinds maybe, people they work with, or work out/find out who these people are. (For legal reasons, however, avoid talking to close relatives or people like doctors. Basically you can't really use what they say anyway - we will discuss this when we are looking at the law of confidentiality)
Speak to as many people who know the subject as possible - and as time allows. I my books I do very long profiles of people like K McK and JSP and others. These are based on dozens of interviews with people who have known them over the years (friends and foes - remember balance) so I can paint a full and fair picture.
There is little point in speaking to the subject themselves. They are not able to be impartial! If you have got an interview with the subject you really have a different format - the (gonzo) feature interview.
But you MUST interview them once you have basically written the piece - to check facts and make sure everything is as fair and full as possible and maybe get one or two more good anecdotes and details. Sometimes they will not speak to you. This does NOT mean you can not still write the piece (if you have done a proper job from clips and secondary sources). But you MUST give them the chance to comment.
It is all a bit like writing an obituary for a living person. The original reason why press clips were kept on people was so that their obit can be written. For this reason newspaper clippings libraries are known to some as "the morgue".
As ever you should study the existing practice in the mainstream media. You will see that the "classic profile" tends to have the following format, or something like it:
1. Tell anecdote/ funny story which sums up your fair opinion about the person
2. (But DON'T COMMENT in your voice - just tell the facts)
3. Break into straight chronological summary. S/he was born... date, place, parents...
4. Balance is essential
5. Stick to facts – either this person is interesting to your readers or not (agenda). No bullshit, comment from you, amateur psychoanalysis.
There's an example here from the FT online. (If the link does not work, go to www.ft.com and navigate from the front page to "People in the News" to see a large number of examples. There's nothing special about this. It is just a typical example, available easily on line. In this case the "drop intro" (anecdote/s) goes on for an heroic nine paragraphs before the chronology starts as "Born in Ghana in 1938, he is arguably..." etc.
Sometimes profiles are done as "rogue’s gallery" set of mini-profiles. This would be something like... Asian High-Fliers - who are Britain's Asian Elite. This would be several profiles done in the method and style described and packaged together and possibly "pegged" on some new survey or other about Asian millionaires.
TV equivalent: "This is your life". Or three min insert on TV news mag show. Single documentary - "The life of..."