Asharq Al-Awsat – When US President Barack Obama recently toured the Pyramids of Giza with the Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass, the President told the archaeologist that he had found out a lot about him from a profile that was featured in the New York Times. The author of that profile was Michael Slackman, who reports for the newspaper from Cairo.
In this interview, Micheal Slackman speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat about the art of writing profiles.
Q) What does writing a profile mean for The New York Times?
A) A profile allows us to accomplish two goals. The first is to tell our readers about an interesting person. The second goal is to be able, through someone’s personal experience, to provide insight to some larger aspect of society. I did a profile once of a ful vendor in Egypt that allowed me to explore the informal economy in Cairo, for example.
Q) How do you establish a profile in your newspaper?
A) There are several vehicles for running profiles. Every Saturday, the Foreign Desk at The New York Times runs what we call ‘The Saturday Profile’, which takes a look at individuals across the globe. The New York Times Magazine also tends to build very large, complicated stories around a single person.
Q) How do you decide who to write a profile on?
A) It really depends. Of course we write about important people. We write profiles on new kings, emirs or presidents but we also like to focus our articles on people who would not normally be in the news. I have profiled poets and sugarcane juice vendors, for example. The most important idea is that by writing about someone’s life we give some insight into a larger issue, like the public mood in Egypt, for example.
Q) Do you gain approval from the editor-in-chief before writing a profile?
A) Newspaper production is like a team sport. It is very collaborative. I often discuss ideas with my editors and kick around ideas. But ultimately they pay me to tell them what is happening in the region.
Q) Do you find it easier to write a profile than a story?
A) Writing is never easy, especially when an average citizen has trusted you and allowed you into their lives and especially in a region where people I write about can get in trouble with security services.
Q) Which is more enjoyable to write?
A) The beauty of being a foreign correspondent for The New York Times is that I have the chance to write a wide range of articles, from profiles to news stories and analyses. I like doing them all.
Q) What are the main elements involved in writing a profile?
A) There is basic biographical information that we try to include in every article, but beyond that it depends entirely on the person I am writing about and the context of the assignment. For example, you can’t really write about Dr. Zahi Hawass and not spend time with him at an ancient site.
Q) How do you use quotes in writing a profile?
A) Quotes are an important part of a profile because they allow our readers to hear the subject’s own voice. That is very easy with someone like Dr. Hawass, who is highly educated and very outspoken. It can be more complicated with people who are shy and quiet.
Q) What’s the best story that you’ve written from Cairo?
A) I’ve been here for about seven years so that’s hard to say.
Q) During President Obama’s recent trip to Egypt he mentioned to Zahi Hawass that he found out a lot about him from the profile that was written in the New York Times. How does that make you feel?
A) My mother would be proud.