I've also been working hard on the revision of my journalism textbook and just stumbled upon something that speaks volumes about the difference between newspapers and magazines.
In the process of collecting string for a new section on profiles, I took a break to check out Esquire's May cover profile of Dave Chappelle, one of my two favorite comic geniuses on Comedy Central (the other, of course, is Jon Stewart.)
Here's the sentence in Kevin Powell's story that jumped out at me:
“Chappelle, as he will say again and again over the nine days I spend with him, simply wants freedom—the freedom to make art the way he feels it should be made; the freedom to live wherever he pleases; the freedom to live wherever he pleases; the freedom to control his own destiny, his own identity.”
Nine days. That's right, count 'em. 9.
Putting aside the deadline-driven "person in the news" profile which has to be produced in a shift's work, how many newspaper profilers get that kind of time? The occasional feature writer, perhaps, may get a long leash, but I'd venture to guesstimate that 2-3 days--tops--is the inside limit with a week or two on the outside to capture a person in print.
Is that the reason why editors at many of the newsrooms I've visited in recent years bemoan the dearth of profiles? Good ones take time. How much time have you had to report and write a profile that you're proud of? Please share your profiles and the story behind these portrait so we can all see what it takes to capture a person on newsprint.
p.s. I can't link to an online version of the Chappelle piece, (you need a print subscription for that), but you can read an "Into the Light," its National Magazine Award-winning profile by Robert Kurson.
p.p.s. Now that I've finished "Heaven, Hell, Dave Chappelle," I'm not sure nine days,or the way they were used, was enough. Powell's profile struck me as quote-heavy and supportive of Gay Talese's distrust of profiles that rely on the tape-recorder. When the action in a profile depends heavily on the subject's cigarette smoking, as the Chappelle story does, the profile comes across as razor-thin. Certainly nothing like the famous Talese profile, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" that relied almost exclusively on observation and interviews (recorded in a notebook and, at day's end, on a typewriter.)
I don't like to bash other writers, but I was disappointed by the Chappelle piece. I shouldn't be comparing it to the maybe impossibly high standard set by Talese in his 1966 reporting tour de force. Here's the back story that Esquire provide, on the occasion of its 70th anniversary, when it named the profile the best story the magazine had ever published :
"In the winter of 1965, writer Gay Talese arrived in Los Angeles with an assignment from Esquire to profile Frank Sinatra. The legendary singer was approaching fifty, under the weather, out of sorts, and unwilling to be interviewed. So Talese remained in L. A., hoping Sinatra might recover and reconsider, and he began talking to many of the people around Sinatra—his friends, his associates, his family, his countless hangers-on—and observing the man himself wherever he could. The result, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," ran in April 1966 and became one of the most celebrated magazine stories ever published, a pioneering example of what came to be called New Journalism—a work of rigorously faithful fact enlivened with the kind of vivid storytelling that had previously been reserved for fiction. The piece conjures a deeply rich portrait of one of the era's most guarded figures and tells a larger story about entertainment, celebrity, and America itself.
Image credits: Esquire.com (Chappelle) and Walker Books (Talese).