News next: a journalism teacher's diary

February 10, 2010

To a worried student

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bernard L. Stein @ 2:12 pm
Tags: , ,

I got an email today from a student who is having trouble nailing down a subject for his profile. He writes:

I’ve had a lot of difficulty finding a good feature piece of write. Since Saturday, I’ve attempted to get in contact with three sources, all heads of three separate institutions that I thought would make for a good piece, and none have returned my phone calls or emails. I had to go with a semi-last minute choice, the supermarket Zabar’s. I’ve got information from their website and I’ve interviewed a few shoppers, but I’m trying to schedule an interview with the general manager and that is proving to be problematic.

It can be hard to get busy people to take the time to talk to you. But sometimes people who aren’t bigwigs or aren’t in the public eye can make the most interesting subjects. Here’s what I suggested:

Think about talking to workers, as well as bosses. How do the lox slicers learn their art? How’s the cheese cared for? Who does it? where? What about those checkers–mostly Latina and some of the fastest draws at the cash register around. It’s always seemed to me a high-pressure job: impatient people on long lines and plenty of rude shoppers ready to criticize.

A profile of the store is fine; you might also consider a profile of one of the workers–slicers, cheese mavens, checkers.

A student in my j-school class is following this advice. She just sent me this pitch:

50-year-old Jose Picart passes out fliers for a living.

He stands in front of McDonalds, usually five days a week, sometimes dressed in a statue of liberty costume, passing out fliers for a tax company. He and many of his fellow employees are, like him, formerly incarcerated individuals who have had trouble finding steady employment.

Jose’s experience working in the Bronx is compelling because of his history. I propose using the “Working in Mott Haven” idea as a way to profile a man who is trying to adjust to life outside of prison after spending over twenty years in the system. I want to understand his struggles finding employment and surviving while working off-the-books, low-wage jobs.

I plan to spend the entire day with Jose, passing out fliers, and supplement that immersion with photographs and information from prisoners’ rights advocates and community leaders who work to bring about a living wage in the Bronx.

In addition to the prisoners’ advocates whose voices she plans to include in her piece, I suggested talking to some of the passersby who do and some of those who don’t take his leaflets. Do they really see him? Are they curious about his story? Do they resent his intrusion on their space or admire his willingness to work at a terrible job?

These are the building blocks of a good profile, one that can capture the reader’s attention and lead him or her to think about the familiar in a new way.

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