Three Ways an Editor Looks at Profiles

By Jack Limpert

One: You can’t have too many people stories. When Time Inc. started People in 1974, the journalists at Time wondered why the great publishing company would start such a magazine. Almost 40 years later, People has lots of readers and revenue and Time looks to be withering away. At The Washingtonian, an editor once asked me if the new issue had too many people stories.

Two: A lot of writers think profiles are fun and easy to do. Over the years I talked with hundreds of writers who were looking for an assignment or a job. I had questions: What books do you like to read? What magazines do you like to read?  What kind of stories do you like to do? When a writer said, “I like to do profiles,” that set off warning bells. Too often, especially with young writers, I got the sense that they had read a lot of celebrity profiles where the writer did a little interviewing and reporting and then used all their overwriting skills to try to do a lively piece. See last week’s interview with Ariel Sabar, a prize-winning profile writer, on the reality of doing profiles well.

Three: A good profile is about more than a person. Ariel Sabar said, “For me, the ideal subject is both richly idiosyncratic and part of something bigger than themselves.”At The Washingtonian we often used a profile of a person to examine an institution, to try to understand a trend, to look at a social problem. We led with a good picture of the individual but the head and deck tried to make clear that the picture was just the tip of the iceberg. Don Hewitt, the genius behind Sixty Minutes, said a good story is about an idea, not a subject. That insight—is this profile going to be about an idea or a subject—always was helpful in story conferences.

P.S. It’s amazing that most newspapers don’t see the potential in the ultimate profile, the obituary. What’s better to read in these jangly digital times than a good story about  a life well-lived?

Comments

  1. Years ago The New York Times turned obituary writing into an art form, something profile writers would do well to emulate. The 1997 book “The Last Word: The New York Times Book of Obituaries and Farewells : A Celebration of Unusual Lives,” edited by Marvin Siegel, is excellent and should be required reading for those writers with an interest in this subject.

  2. Jack, as a small city tri-weekly, we often take the time to create front page “obit” profiles of some of our county’s more notable characters. Amazingly, just this week we had a situation where one of our feature writers had already started a piece on a woman in a small town here who raised 62 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She passed away just a few days after the reporter met her. The family invited the writer to the funeral and the story turned into one of the best profile features we’ve ever run. That was unusual, of course. Most of the time, front page obits are truly “after the fact,” but no less effective thanks to family and friends who share their memories with us about their loved one. They are often among our most popular articles.

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