I had a rather depressing conversation this week with a student, who was seeking a potential interviewee for a profile piece. After two weeks of thinking time, she hadn’t come up with one.
“I don’t know anyone interesting,” she told me.
“Yes, you do,” I said. “Everyone does.”
“No, I really don’t,” she argued. This says a great deal more about her than it does about her friends and family. To a reporter, everyone is interesting and has a potential story to tell. But that mindset can and must be learned, to succeed in this industry.
This semester, students on two of my journalism modules have to produce a similar assignment: writing a profile. Some will produce a profile of any interesting character for the Magazine Journalism module, while others studying Fashion Writing need to find someone related to the industry.
Writing a good profile is quite a skill, although to read some of the published pieces that come under this general umbrella, you wouldn’t think it. In trying to explain what makes a worthwhile read, I’ve not only used the exemplars, but also the woefully large number of examples of how not to do it. Students can be forgiven, in a way, for getting it wrong. So many articles that purport to be profiles are simply ‘cuttings jobs’, in other words a mish-mash of other people’s pieces that offer no new information on the subject at all.
Even worse, I think, are the ones that are set out simply as Q and As, or a series of statements in the guise of answers to questions. This seems to me to be a deeply lazy form, the likely result of nothing more than an e-mail exchange between the reporter and the subject (or the subject’s press team). It means the interviewee can carefully control all the information that’s published about them, and the reader gets no insight into their personality at all. It’s a PR puff. For the reader, what’s the point of that?
The trouble is, this is the preferred style in so many magazines and even newspapers these days. I think it’s another example of the media treating the reader like an imbecile, as if we’re all incapable of reading longer-form, more nuanced writing that digs deeper than the public persona. So I tell the students that I know they’re capable of sending out a list of questions by e-mail and copy-and-pasting the replies. I don’t need to test this. I need to test their ability to interview face to face, to get a subject open up, to include their own observations and to write it up in a compelling way.
The profiles that do work really well are those where the reporter is not only informed but, crucially, is unafraid. Examples that I’ve read recently include The Guardian’s profiles on Louise Mensch (written before she resigned) and actor James Corden. Both of these show reporters who’re unafraid to press a subject long enough to get them to reveal something of themselves, and they are a joy to read.
Understandably, the students agonise a little over who they should interview. “I don’t know anyone famous,” is often the anguished cry. No – and most reporters don’t. Most interviews are with people you don’t know, and having the courage to ‘cold call’ and ask people to talk to you is a key journalistic skill. Assume they will talk to you, I always say – because most people do say yes, and a positive, unapologetic attitude will encourage that.
I’ve also made it clear that their subject doesn’t have to be someone famous, just someone interesting. A classic example of an excellent profile – where the subject is someone most of us haven’t heard of – is from The New Yorker and is about ‘the chef who catches your dinner.’ (Once again – the American long-form journalism often beats ours into a shameful pulp).
Some good elements to include in a profile, I’d suggest, are:
Anecdotes about the subject’s childhood or younger days, that hint at the person they’ve become;
Descriptions of their surroundings, appearance and body language, because such details often give away something of their character
And the things they didn’t want to talk about or the questions they shy away from. Go back to that incisive interview with Louise Mensch and see how she responds to questions about whether she’s had a face-lift. That section tells us much more about her than anything else I’ve ever read.
At the end of a profile, the reader should feel that they know the subject a little more – almost that they were there with the reporter, having a coffee with them, watching it all go on. You can’t get that from a list of Q and As. Let’s hope that newspapers and magazines begin to realise that and have the courage to offer the reader something more.