Taken from The New York Times Learning Network:
A “profile feature” is a newspaper article that explores the background and character of a particular person (or group). The focus should be on a news angle or a single aspect of the subject’s personal or professional life. The article should begin with the reason the subject is newsworthy at this time, and should be based (not exclusively) on an extensive interview with the subject.
Biographical material is important, but should not be overemphasized: the biography is background to the news. Readers should be allowed to better understand the subject by seeing this person in the context of his or her interests and career, educational and family background.
When reporting a profile feature article, observe your surroundings carefully. Pay attention to your subject’s habits and mannerisms. Subtle clues like posture, tone of voice and word choice can all, when presented to readers, contribute to a fuller and more accurate presentation of the interview subject.
When interviewing, encourage your subject to open up and express significant thoughts, feelings or opinions. Do so by asking open-ended questions that are well-planned. Make sure to research the subject of your profile before beginning your interview. This will help you to maintain focus during the conversation and to ask questions that will elicit compelling responses.
The article should open with the subject’s connection to the news event and should deal later with birth, family, education, career and hobbies, unless one of those happens to be the focus of the story.
Interview at least five other people, representing a variety of perspectives, about the subject of your profile. Ask them for telling anecdotes. You don’t have to quote, or even mention, all of these people in your article. But each may provide you with information that will help you ask better questions of your profile subject, or of the next person you interview.
Make a list of people you would like to interview for your article. Contact them early, and often. If sources you think would be useful don’t return your calls or notes, be politely persistent. Ask again, always explaining who you are, the topic of your article, and why you think they would be helpful. If they won’t talk to you, ask them to refer you to others who might.
Profile features should include the major elements of hard news stories, but should also provide readers with details help to capture the essence of the person you are profiling. Contextual information should clearly show readers why the profile subject you have chosen is relevant and interesting.
Since features are typically reported and written over a much longer period of time than event-driven news, they should be carefully researched and supported with as much background material as possible. Check the library, the Internet and experts for previous news coverage and references to key information.
Profile feature ledes are often more creative than news leads. They don’t always need to contain the standard “five w’s (and h)”: who, what, when, where, why and how. (These elements should, however, be aggregated somewhere in your article in what has come to be known as a “nut graf,” the paragraph that clearly explains to readers who your profile is about and why this person is interesting.) A profile feature lede can take one of many forms. One is a “delayed lede,” in which a person is introduced before his or her relevance is revealed. An example:
As a young girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Mae C. Jemison watched telecasts of the Gemini and Apollo spaceflights and knew that that was her destiny. No matter that all the astronauts were male and white and that she was female and black. She simply knew she would be a space traveler.
Now a 35-year-old doctor and engineer, Dr. Jemison has realized her dream, launching into orbit yesterday as one of the shuttle Endeavor’s sever-member crew. In the process she has become the first African-American woman to go into space. …
When structuring your story, don’t feel tied to the “inverted pyramid” style of writing, in which the most important information is placed in the first paragraph and proceeds retrogressively from there. Consider weaving background material with details and quotes, and when choosing an order in which to present your information, move thematically rather than chronologically.
Don’t end your article with a conclusion. Consider saving a particularly resonant quote for the last sentence. This way your article will end with a voice the reader may be left hearing long after he or she has finished your story.