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Secrets of an award-winning profile story

August 9, 2011

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Lobbyist and lawyer Lanny Davis, the subject of D.M. Levine's profile in The American Lawyer, is a frequent TV commentator.

I could feel lobbyist Lanny Davis’ constant energy when I read D.M. Levine’s profile of him (PDF) for The American Lawyer. Levine sets that tone right away in the second paragraph when he writes:

“Lanny Davis is racing down K Street on a sweltering day in early August – late for an interview at ABC News. That line, the one about how D.C.-is-worse-today-than-he’s-ever-seen-it-before, is his main talking point of the moment; it’s an idea he first tested out in a column for The Hill the day before and a point he went on to make almost verbatim on his ABC World News appearance, later that day as a guest on MSNBC, to this reporter in his car, and even to an old acquaintance he happened to run into. Davis gets so distracted mining his own thoughts on the subject that, at one point, he turns the wrong way on a one-way street and freezes for what feels like hours (though he continues talking) before finally pulling over to the curb. It’s a truly amazing skill: the ability to stay on message in the face of oncoming traffic. But Davis is experienced.”

D.M. Levine, reporter, AdWeek
D.M. Levine

Davis is a well-known lobbyist and lawyer, a person whose job is to “be out the middle of the conversation,” says Levine, who’s now a staff writer covering media at Adweek.

“There had been drums of ink spilled on what he was doing and who he was, and drums of ink praising him and drums of ink insulting him,” Levine says. “Not a lot of people had spent a lot of time to see what made him tick or who this guy was. It was fairly clear the job that I had to do.”

The article was among this year’s American Society of Business Publication Editors award winners (PDF).

Today’s Tips: Don’t get pigeonholed by your research, and pay attention to what the research is missing.

“The trick in this instance was to keep in the back of my mind what I’d read about him already,” Levine says. “I assessed him as a blank slate almost as if I didn’t know anything about him.”

The news peg for this piece was Davis hanging out his own shingle. Levine says he traveled to Washington and New York to spend time with Davis. They also talked hours on the phone. “I would get calls on Sunday morning at 10 a.m. I had a notebook in my back pocket at all times.”

To sort through all the notes, Levine says he has learned to part with stuff. “It’s a tragic process, but you can end up with a story that has nothing if you have too much information.”

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