Thanks to TimesPeople (yes, I am officially a TimesPerson) I discovered through my 'network' of TimesPeople, that now includes Bill Keller, that I follow a recommendation to an article called Talk to the Newsroom: Bruce Weber.
Fascinating (see below) and all thanks to TimesPeople.
September 22, 2008
Talk to the Newsroom: Bruce Weber
Talk to the Newsroom: Bruce Weber
Bruce Weber, an obituary writer, answered questions from readers Sept. 22-26, 2008. To move directly to the most recent answer, click here.
Mr. Weber joined The New York Times as a staff editor for the Sunday magazine section in 1986, where he also wrote cover articles on courtship in the age of AIDS, the Mets and the novelist Robert Stone, as well as a back page column that accompanied a photographic feature, Works in Progress. In the daily newsroom since 1991, he has been a general assignment reporter on the Metro desk (twice), a night rewrite man, a theater columnist, the national cultural correspondent (based in Chicago), a theater critic and a few other things besides.
He covered the Garry Kasparov-Deep Blue chess matches. He rode a bicycle solo across the United States and with others from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and chronicled both journeys. He wrote a nine-part series about the creation of a contemporary opera, William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein's adaptation of the Arthur Miller play, “A View From the Bridge.” He has written profiles of the Harvard admissions department, the New York Public Library and Cher.
Since returning in April from working on a book, he has been writing obituaries. The book, “As They See ’Em: Travels in the Land of Umpires,” will be published in March by Scribner. He is also the author, with the dancer Savion Glover, of “Savion! My Life in Tap.”
Other Times staff members have answered questions in this column, including Executive Editor Bill Keller, Managing Editor Jill Abramson, Managing Editor John Geddes, Assistant Managing Editor Glenn Kramon, Associate Managing Editor Charles Strum, Obituaries Editor Bill McDonald, Director of Copy Desks Merrill Perlman, Metropolitan Editor Joe Sexton, Living Editor Trish Hall, Investigations Editor Matthew Purdy, National Editor Suzanne Daley, Digital News Editor Jim Roberts and Culture Editor Sam Sifton. Their responses and those of other Times staff members are available on the Talk to the Newsroom page.
These discussions will continue in coming weeks with other Times editors and reporters.
The Perfect Subject
Q. If you were asked to rewrite an obituary for any person, whose would you choose to rewrite?
A. I’m assuming you mean which figures from history had lives that intrigue me as a reporter, and not the ones whose deaths I so relished that I would delight in reporting them. That said, there’s an endless list of lives that would be fascinating to summarize and try to illuminate, but I tend to be most interested in renegades, oddballs, eccentrics, people who achieved great things — or not-so-great things — by virtue of being boldly out of the mainstream. I wrote Bobby Fischer’s obit, for example, and was really enthralled by his arcane genius and his complicated, contentious persona. A few others I would like to have written about: Lenny Bruce, Bill Veeck, Mae West, Truman Capote.
A Place For Humor
Q. Occasionally an obit is really funny, reflecting, I suppose, the life that’s been lived. How much leeway do you have in reporting some of the wackier aspects of a person’s life?
— Judith Estrine
A. The general outlook of the obituary department is that our articles are about lives that have been lived, not deaths that have occurred. The idea is to appreciate the character of the subject to the degree that that’s possible, usually based on what we know that person has accomplished and on what we can glean from interviews with family members and others. You never want to make fun of anyone, but you do want to appreciate eccentricities, record unusual events and relay humorous incidents or comments. In that way, a good obituary can be like a good eulogy.
‘A Long Illness’
Q. Does “long illness” as in “died after a long illness” usually mean cancer? And why isn't the nature of the illness given?
— Roger Lodger
A. Mr. Lodger, “long illness” does sometimes mean cancer, but it’s not a mere euphemism. For one thing, cancer can be a short illness. Often the phrase is shorthand for a combination of ailments that undermined someone’s health over a period of months or years. Sometimes the family isn’t sure how to characterize the cause of death and falls back on this description. Sometimes there is simply no more specific information available to us.
Close to Home
Q. I recall reading, with real interest, occasional obits on New York Times staffers (active or retired) until about six months ago. Now, no more. Is it just my imagination, or have Times staffers stopped dying?
— Bob McCabe
A. Alas, Mr. McCabe, Times staffers remain as mortal as they've ever been. I had the sad duty of writing about the death of a colleague, Martin Gradel, in August.
Who Gets an Obit?
Q. How do you choose? And how much impact does asking you to write an obit have — can a reader send an e-mail extolling someone?
A. As in any other section of the paper, what is printed on the obituaries pages is a matter of the editors’ news judgment. This pertains to whom we decide to write about and how much we decide to write.
We’re aware, by the way, that readers (some of them) try to figure out what we have judged to be the relative importance of obituary subjects by the length of the obituary and its placement on the page, but to reach conclusions based on those two elements is to operate on incomplete information. Other factors: How much space is available on the page that day? How much new information about the subject is revealed in the obituary? How interesting is it to read?
Sometimes the details of a person's life may not add up to “important,” but they add up to interesting. Case in point: The typewriter man, Martin Tytell, whose vocation was so eccentric and he was so good at it that the details of his craft and life were reader candy.
As for whether extolling e-mails help us decide to write about someone, the answer is usually not. The exceptions are subjects who may have made important contributions to important events or to arcane fields of knowledge but who stayed below the general radar; in those cases we might well take note of extolling e-mails from experts in a field. An example: the death of Dick Netzer, an economist who worked with distinction at N.Y.U. and would probably have gone unremarked by the paper if we hadn’t heard from board members of the Municipal Assistance Corporation, which pulled New York City out of bankruptcy in the 1970s, that Mr. Netzer’s contributions to the original board were invaluable in solving the city’s fiscal crisis.
Before the Fact
Q. Do obituary writers for The Times generally interview their subject prior to their demise?
— Dick Hermans
A. Generally no, but that’s because most of our subjects are dead before we begin writing about them. For the subjects of advance obituaries, we often make inquiries about whether they would like to be interviewed. The reactions, as you might suspect, are mixed. Some are amused. Some are appalled. Some are eager to get in the last word, as it were. Some couldn’t think of anything more macabre and distasteful.
What's the Attraction?
Q. What attracts you to being an obituary writer? Do you consider writing obituaries more as writing a short essay style biography of the deceased? It seems like an interesting way to get in and out of someone’s life quickly.
— Raghu Krishnaswamy
A. I think you’ve expressed the attraction accurately. Obituaries are, by nature, more essayistic than most other news stories. They provide the writer a little freedom from the pyramid form and other rigors of newswriting style, and often it’s a chance to learn about someone you’re glad to know about and achievements and bits of history you'd otherwise have missed.
Why So Many Men in the Obits?
Q. I have been reading The Times daily since I was about 10 years old. I love the autobiographical obituaries. It is interesting to me that 14 out of 15 are about men who have died, and the 15th is about a woman of note. It is amazing that so few women who die are interesting enough to write about. Tell me about this.
— Bernita Hassall Fadden, Palm Coast, Fla.
A. It's hard to deny that a disproportionate percentage of our obituaries are about men, though I think 14 out of 15 is an exaggeration. (I counted my own recent obituaries, and 8 of the last 50 have been women, including Helen Galland, Mila Schön and Barbara Warren.) I certainly hope this isn't about gender bias, and I don't think it is. For one thing, our departmental discussions about who is and who isn't deserving never touch on a subject's gender, unless it's to note that for a woman (or a man) to have accomplished such-and-such was unusual, as was the case with Mary Garber, whose obituary was written by Richard Goldstein. For another thing, the editor who does most of the daily assigning, Claiborne Ray, is a woman. Prompted by your letter I asked her about the disparity, and she confirmed my instinctive response, which is that the majority of people who are dying these days — that is, older people — grew up at a time when achievement and fame were far more accessible to men than to women. Writing obituaries often makes you feel as though you're reporting on a world that doesn't exist any more, and I can only assume that as time goes on, the number of women who appear on the obituaries pages will grow significantly.
Choosing the Facts to Include
Q. My mother and I own a genealogy business that stemmed from a hobby and has now grown to a full-fledged global business. Among basic documents such as birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, ship manifestos, etc., we often look to attainable obituaries for clues to the story and arc of a person's life. As an obituary writer, how do you discern which facts and milestones are key for inclusion and/or exclusion? Do you write from the perspective of communicating facts or telling a compelling story?
— Jamie Davidson
A. Like any journalist, I'm beholden to facts and I spend most of my time gathering as many as I can. Aside from the personally defining information — dates of birth and death, surviving family members, etc. — I look for the facts that pertain to the reason I'm writing the obit in the first place. Usually that means professional achievements, though occasionally there are other reasons — intimate connections to the famous or interesting family lineage, for example. Finally, through interviews and research I try to get a sense of the subject in his or her written works, quotations in published pieces or recollections from people who knew the subject. From all that I try to craft a story that a generally curious reader would want to read, but the ideal situation is always mitigated by the daily journalism factor. Sometimes I have the time to find a lot more than I can use; sometimes I don't have the time to get a genuine sense of who I'm writing about. Again, like any other journalist, on deadline I write what I know.
The Hard Parts of the Job
Q. Can you talk about some of the more difficult (for whatever reason) obituaries you've been assigned? Do you ever discover vital details that should have made one of your pieces after it's gone to print? Most important, did you specifically want this job or did you fall into it? As a journalist myself, I'm not sure how to get into the field of obituary writing.
— Christian Smith
A. For me, the most difficult obits are the ones whose subjects were important in fields that I'm not especially well versed in, economics and physics to pick two. So the cases of Henry B. R. Brown, who invented, with a partner, the money market mutual fund, and Alvin Marks, a prolific inventor of energy-related devices, were sticky. For the former, I asked a colleague in the business section, Floyd Norris, for help in crafting the language that described Mr. Brown's work. For the latter, I asked a partner of Mr. Marks to do the same.
It's happened a couple of times that I've discovered a fact that I should have included in an obituary. In the obituary of John Jay Iselin, the television executive who led Channel 13 from 1973 to 1987, I spent all my time researching his impact on public broadcasting and missed the fact that he was among those prominent New Yorkers who were duped by the young con man pretending to be Sidney Poitier's son, a circumstance that became the basis for John Guare's play "Six Degrees of Separation." More than one reader pointed out to me that I missed the boat on that, that it was a significant news event in which my subject played a part and should have been included in the obit. I'd have to agree.
As for whether I wanted the job or fell into it, both are sort of true. In the spring when I returned to the paper from writing a book, it was one of a handful of jobs that were open. I chose it over several others.
Q. O.K., answer me this. Why is it obituary writers still write, "Died peacefully in his/her sleep," when in truth the following statement would be correct most of the time, "Died in his/her sleep because they had the money and connections to obtain lethal drugs?" I am sure you can extrapolate what I am hitting at.
A. You're a cynical man, David. I don't know why obituary writers elsewhere write that. In our newspaper, it is often used in the paid death notices, but I don't believe you'll ever find the phrase "died peacefully in his sleep" (or "her sleep") in an obituary in The New York Times.
Can an Obit Be Purchased?
Q. Are New York Times obits purchased? Can a New York Times obit be purchased? If so, how?
— Bruce Bailey
A. In a word? No.
Which Bruce Weber Are You?
Q. Are you the Bruce Weber who authored the "All-Pro Baseball Stars" books I bought off Scholastic reading lists in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I was in second, third and fourth grades in Staten Island? If so, why didn't you pick more Yankees to your All-Pro teams? Just joking. I enjoyed those books as a kid, and every time I see your byline I wonder...
— Jeff Diamant
A. Nope. Not me. I'm not the photographer Bruce Weber, either. Or the downtown poet. Or the University of Illinois basketball coach, for that matter.
Handling Controversies in Obits
Q. How can you prevent an obituary from becoming a forum for the agenda of the deceased's associates, as occurred in the recent case of John Y. Simon? Aren't there safeguards to subject controversial charges to the same scrutiny as a hard news story? In that case, I was appalled to see the public exposure of an ongoing investigation that had been carefully kept quiet on campus to protect the privacy of all involved. I noted that other outlets that reposted the obituary, such as The Chicago Tribune, edited out the two paragraphs that discussed the investigation.
A. Obviously, whether to report on the controversy that occurred during the last months of Professor Simon's life was a difficult matter to decide, and I discussed it at length with my editors. Having learned about it, we felt we couldn't simply ignore it, especially since it had a bearing on the professional life that made Mr. Simon worthy of writing about to begin with. In writing about it, I tried to present only the facts and not "the agenda of the deceased's associates." If your opinion is that I failed to do so, we disagree.
The Joys of Reading British Obits
Q. One of joys of reading obits in the British papers is the subtext information provided by each paper's stylist. "He enjoyed life to the fullest", i.e. he was a drunken sot; "He was a confirmed batchlor," i.e. he was gay; cautious = tightwad; etc., etc. The Times doesn't go in for this??? — or am I not sussed into the key words?
— Karl Johnson, Arlington, Va.
A. I agree. That is one of the pleasures of reading obits in the British papers. I'm afraid you'll have to take other pleasures from ours.
Your Own Obituary
Q. Mr. Weber, have you written your own obituary — yet?
— Shan Ellentuck
A. Should I be worried? Do you know something I don't know?
Writing About the Painful Moments
Q. Do you ever find that writing an honest account of someone's life might be awkward or painful for someone still living? How much is the effect on others on your mind as you write?
— Gretchen Stein
A. Sometimes it is awkward, yes. I'm always aware that writing about an unhappy time in the life of a subject is likely to make family members revisit it, but the reporter in me realizes I'm not writing for the benefit of the family but for the benefit of readers. In a situation like that you try to write straightforwardly and not exploitatively, and in my experience, limited as it is, most times family members end up appreciating honest appraisals of a loved one's life. First and foremost I think they want to feel they recognize the person they read about.
The Toughest Question
Q. Just curious: has The Times maintained Alden Whitman's (the Iceman) tradition of past years to meet with potential obituary subjects during the living years so as to prepare much of the obit in advance? Also, if so, what is the toughest question to ask?
— Grady Holloway, Bar Harbor, Me.
A. For advance obits, we often inquire whether the subject would like to participate. I've only written a handful of advances and no one has yet agreed to talk, so for me, I'd have to say the toughest question has been: Would you like to be interviewed for your obituary?
Getting Prepared for Death
Q. I've always marveled at the depth and quality of the obits in The New York Times . . . to the point where I now make a point of picking up the paper when someone notable dies. I've always assumed that much of them are written in advance, with recent details added when the person actually dies. If this is the case, I wonder how you decide when it's time to get to work on an obit. Have you ever started working on one for a younger person who seems on a collision course with early death? Morbid, I know. But I guess that's your bag, huh? I think your department does great work. Keep it up.
— Michael Kargas
A. There isn't any hard and fast rule about when an advance obit should be written. If we hear of a well-known person's illness, that might be a reason. Advanced age in and of itself can be a reason. (In addition to the advances we have on file, we have a long list of people, in many categories of public life, we'd like to do.) Every now and then the name of a pop star with self-destructive tendencies comes up as a possibility. We try to figure out who we need to be prepared for. I suppose we're like actuaries in that way.
Talking to Family Members
Q. Part of the obituary reporting process involves talking to family members and others who were close to the deceased. How do these people react when you call them? Do they hang up on you and tell you to leave them alone, or are they usually willing to talk? What have you learned about handling what must be a sensitive and sometimes uncomfortable situation?
— Ira Kaplan
A. In my experience, family members are almost always willing to talk and, in fact, are eager to talk. For one thing, I think they perceive a New York Times obituary as something of an acknowledgment of a noteworthy life. For another, after a loved one dies, the impulse to speak lovingly and appreciatively of him or her to anyone and everyone is a rather natural one, I think. As far as "handling" the situation, I think common respect and courtesy are obviously called for. Less specifically, I think you can communicate empathy simply by the way you talk to someone. I've become better at that because I think having this job has made me more empathetic — I walk around more cognizant and consciously aware that this kind of loss is a universal experience.
How Many People Write Obits?
Q. How many people write obituaries at your paper? Is it true that you keep an archive of obituaries of public figures so that the obits are ready when these people expire? If so, how many obits-in-waiting do you have in your backlog?
— Rhea Becker, Boston
A. There are five writers in the obituaries department, but many others on the paper contribute obituaries as well. It is true that we write obituaries of well-known people in advance — I'm told the number is about 1,300 at the moment — which are, of course, updated (and often rewritten) when the time comes. The reason is that writing about people with lives of extraordinary achievement and/or notoriety requires the kind of research and thought that is next-to-impossible to complete in a day, so we simply wish to be prepared.
A Question of Expertise
Q. Over your career, you have written about a remarkably wide variety of subjects and people. How do you manage to keep on top of so many subjects with the amount of expertise that a New York Times article requires?
— Molly Mullen
A. Actually, in journalism I think a motley career is closer to the rule than to the exception. Many journalists specialize, of course, and their expertise deepens their work, but journalism isn't necessarily about expertise. The word I prefer is authority. A reporter's job is to gather as much information as he can in the amount of time he has to gather it, and then write authoritatively on the basis of that information. If you can't state something with authority, you don't state it at all. So I thank you for the compliment, but I think you give me too much credit. I'm not sure I manage to keep on top of anything except what I'm writing about that day.
Reluctance to Publish Cause of Death?
Q. How much resistance do you typically encounter in including cause of death in obits? Have you experienced occasions where families expressed the belief that cause of death was none of the public's business? Not just suicides, but illnesses as well. Have you found any cultural or regional resistance in particular to including the cause of death in obituaries? (Question is based on newspaper life in a part of the country where family privacy concerns virtually censor the cause of death from appearing in published obits. Funeral homes and local media have shown no interest in providing or seeking this information.) Thanks for any comments you may have on this public information vs. personal privacy clash.
— John Simonds, Honolulu
A. I've encountered occasional resistance from family members on the issue of the cause of death, and if they express a wish not to reveal it I generally respect their wishes. There are, of course, circumstances when the cause is pertinent to the story of the life or in other ways newsworthy, and in those cases I'll make a greater effort. As for regional differences in the attitude toward this issue, I haven't noticed any, but I haven't been paying attention, either.
Corrections on Obits
Q. I missed the John Y. Simon obituary (grandchildren were visiting) and read it online tonight because of the question about it. Now it has a correction/addendum which makes me wonder how often this happens and why. Do all online archived obits include any such additional material?
Compliment beyond my question: Everyone has a story; you choose and chronicle truly fascinating ones. Thanks.
— Mary Fox
A. Corrections appear on obtuaries, as they do on all news stories, when errors find their way into the newspaper. There are a number of reasons this happens. In the case of John Y. Simon, there were three errors, all of them my fault. For one, I failed to independently confirm facts that were contained in a quotation from a source, and the facts turned out to be wrong. For the second, I misread a publisher's Web site and referred to outdated information in it. For the third, I subracted 1964 from 2008 and got 34 — 10 fewer than the actual number of years Mr. Simon taught at Southern Illinois. All in all, not my finest hour.
Who Gets 'the Verb'?
Q. I was wondering how you decide who gets "the verb" and who doesn't?
— Channtal Fleischfresser
A. For those not clued in, only one obituary per page gets a verb in the headline — usually "dies" or "is", as in "is dead." It's not my call, but the section editor, Bill McDonald, who does make the decision, says it goes to the most prominent person — the lead story, so to speak. (If obits appear on more than one page, each page gets a verb.)
Obituaries on the Weekends
Q. The Sunday edition of the NYT usually has very few new obits. Do people not die on Saturdays, or are the staffers off for the weekend?
— Bill Ullman
A. It's the latter. On weekends, the responsibility for obituaries is officially handed off to other desks, though the obit editors are often in touch and in the case of the deaths of prominent people who die unexpectedly and without an advance obit on file — David Foster Wallace, most recently — a member of the obits staff is frequently called in.
A Mysterious Middle Name
Q. I never thought one could be captivated by an obituary, until I read yours in late August 2008 of Laurance Urdang, the language expert who edited dictionaries. It was magnificent! I was so impressed that you respected his daughter's wish and didn't reveal his middle name. Would you let us know now?
A. She never told me. And even if she had, I wouldn't squeal. Thanks, by the way, for the lovely compliment.
The Cross-Country Bicycle Trip
Q. Although I read obituaries to have a feeling about the lives people lived, I am interested in your biking experience. Did you plan in advance your travel route? Any reservations for motels? Did you find yourself in the the middle of nowhere at the end of a day? How did you manage to carry your stuff? I still have too many questions but thats enough. Thanks.
— Sam Kamara
A. You're asking me to reach back in memory; the cross-country bike trip was the summer of 1993. As in most ventures I undertake, this one was very haphazardly planned. I decided to go from west to east because the prevailing winds blow that way. And I decided to start from San Francisco because I had a friend I could stay with in Marin County while I prepared. I carried my clothes and bare-bones supplies in back-wheel panniers and strapped on a sleeping bag and a lightweight tent in case I had to sleep outside. That happened a handful of times, but believe me, after riding a bike all day, I just wanted to drink a beer, have a meal, watch a ball game on TV and fall asleep in an actual bed. (It took me about two weeks to ride myself into shape, so that I wasn't sore and weary before I even started out in the morning.) In fact, I plotted my route from day to day on the basis of where I thought I had the best chance of finding a motel, precisely because I did not wish to be in the middle of nowhere at the end of a day. A few times, this meant traveling an extra couple of hours when I didn't especially want to because the local Red Roof Inn had gone out of business or the town that should have had a motel just didn't. I spent a lot of time in the evening reading local maps and, between innings, watching the Weather Channel. Thanks for asking this question. Those are good memories. It was a great trip.
By the way, this might be a good time — well, it's probably a little late — to thank Soma Golden Behr, who was the national editor of the paper at the time and who responded "yes" in a split second when I asked if her section would be interested in a journal of a cross-country bike trip. I was all set to take a leave of absence to make the trip, and thanks to her, I didn't have to. (I did have to give up my vacation time and pay my own expenses, but still it was a pretty good deal.)
Absorbing and Prioritizing the Information
Q. As a neophyte obituarist, I sometimes struggle with:
1) Processing large pieces of text written about the person (e.g., .biographies, autobiographies, memoirs) and staying on deadline. It's especially difficult when the subject's memoirs are yet to be published and are more a pastiche of thoughts, recollections, and quotes. Do you have a system by which you cull lengthy texts for essential information?
2) I have noticed that the New York Times obituaries are of varying lengths while our paper likes them at 15 to 18 inches. It's difficult for me to keep the obit at this length if the person had a broad, versatile past. I've learned to hone in on one essential aspect of that person's life like a heat-seeking missile. I've found out, though, that deliberating on what not to include — yet keeping the obituary tight — can take as long as simply suffixing the information. Do you have any advice to quicken this deliberating process?
— Evin Demirel
A. Well, my first response — and it's a little snarky — is read faster, think faster and write faster. More seriously, I'd say that many obituary subjects who have written memoirs or had biographies written about them end up being advance obit subjects, so I can actually spend the time reading the books rather carefully. I realize that not every newspaper gives its writers that luxury, and it's certainly true that on a number of occasions I've had to cram. In situations like that, secondary sources, by dint of what they emphasize, will often point you to the key sections of the primary sources. Sometimes I'll ask a family member if the subject had achievements he or she was especially proud of, what he or she most wanted to be remembered for. Otherwise, what I do is become as well informed as I can in the time I have, make my best judgments about what to include and what to leave out and then keep my fingers crossed that I haven't screwed up.
The Life of an Obituary Writer
Q. You spent a number of years covering theater and the arts. It would seem that such a beat required you to be out and about, meeting people, attending performances and the like. It would seem that obit writing is a much more solitary affair, with little, if any, "social life" attached to the job. Are there any other major differences in terms of the life style associated with the two jobs, and, without compromising your current position, is there one that you prefer over the other?
— Peter P. Mahoney, Cambridge, Mass.
A. You're absolutely correct about the lack of any social life attached to the job of writing obituaries. I do miss being out and about at night, and I miss the regular doses of good theater I had the opportunity to see. But while I was a theater reporter and critic I missed the World Series every year. And as any theater critic can tell you, if you've spent three evenings in a row at crummy shows, you'd almost rather write your own obituary than go to the theater again on night number four.
Book Possibilities in the Obits
Q. Have you ever written and obituary that prompted or enticed you to look further into that person's life with the intention of writing a longer feature article or possibly a book? If so, who may have that been and what about them intrigued you?
— Daniel Culbert, New York
A. I can imagine this happening; I admit I'm sort of on the lookout for a subject that would be fun to explore further. But having just finished a book, I'm not eager to begin another one just yet.
What Keeps Obits Out of the Paper?
Q. Recently a family friend died who had been a prominent artist in his hometown (not New York City). It was over a week before his obit appeared in the area's largest newspaper, which seemed odd given his importance in the art world. What sorts of things stand in the way of an obituary being published?
A. Available space and other news. At The Times, the obits section doesn't have its own space. We're an orphan, moving around the paper to wherever the empty real estate is that day. We also share our space with the paid obits, and they often squeeze news obits out because they help pay the bills.
Scrambling for Obits?
Q. My wife has told me that papers keep obits for all manner of well-known persons on file. When was the last time The Times had to scramble for an obit they didn't have.
A. Two recent ones were David Foster Wallace and Tim Russert.
People Who Connect With the Masses
Q. I am always struck by the degree to which some individuals make a lasting effect on large numbers of peoples lives. I was wondering if you saw many common themes that cause certain lives to matter so much to others. Obviously, seeing others as individuals and trying to understand their needs must be an important component. But many people become admired and "loved" by complete strangers. What is it that endears one to large segments of the public?
— Ray Shaheen, Rochester, N.Y.
A. That's really an interesting thought, that there might be a quality in some people that draw masses of other people to them; human catnip, as it were. Alas, I have no explanation for it.
Obits on Deadline
Q. Thanks for your informative answers to all those intriguing questions. I cannot help but ask two questions, if I may. First, is there a deadline for an obituary? Second, do you happen to know the percentage of non-Americans covered by The New York Times?
— Shaohua Hu, Staten Island
A. Yes, there is a deadline for obituaries that need to run in the paper the next day. The first edition of the paper closes at 9 p.m., which means the obit has to be written and edited and fitted for space by then. (More often you break your neck to finish in time and then there isn't any room.) As to your second question, I don't know. I don't think we've ever counted. It's probably not a big percentage, though of course we cover the deaths of major political and cultural figures. We're a United States paper and we're a New York paper, so we tend to be U.S.-centric and to a lesser degree New York-centric.
Those Who Are Left Out
Q. How can a highly respected person whose funeral was attended by hundreds, and whose death was reported to The Times, then not be written about in the obituary pages?
— A reader in Brooklyn Heights
A. One would hope that highly respected people abound, that there are far more of them whose deaths are noteworthy than any newspaper can hope to report on. We receive information daily on dozens of people — beloved teachers, terrific doctors, clergymen, journalists, social workers, selfless volunteers — who achieve much and are highly respected and deserve to be. Whether their deaths rise to the level of reportable news is, on a case-by-case basis, a matter for the discernment of reporters and editors. We ask questions like: Was this person important only locally or were his or her contributions resonant in the wider world? Was there a particular achievement this person is known for, something that an obituary could focus on and explain, or was the person just sort of generally excellent as a human being? Is there a reason for general readers of The New York Times to be informed of the death of this person and be aware of this person's life, or would the obituary be largely solace for the people who knew and loved him? It sounds strange, and maybe a little cold, I know, to consider a life as a series of editorial questions, but without greatly expanding coverage, we have no alternative. Do we?
Q. Who decides which obituaries appear on the front page and which photo is used? What factors influence these decisions? And are you familiar with the work titled "Obituary" by Joseph Bartscherer, in which the artist collects and displays every edition of The New York Times that runs an obituary on the front page? It's been shown at the Marian Goodman Gallery and elsewhere. If so, what do you think of the piece?
— Joe Bainger
A. The makeup of the front page is determined daily at late afternoon meetings attended by section editors throughout the paper, with the final decisions made by the top editors (including art and photo editors) — those you find at the top of our editorial masthead. The factors regarding which obits appear on the front page are the same as they are for any and all news stories: How important is the news? How interesting is the story? What else is going on today? As for Mr. Bartscherer's work, I wasn't aware of it, but now that I am, I'm interested.
Judging the Lives of Scholars
Q. I work in a university where many of the professors can be said to have made significant contributions in their fields. In many cases, however, these fields are very narrow. When dealing with the deaths of academics who have done research in arcane areas of scholarship or science, how do you decide whether a person's contributions are important enough to warrant an obituary?
— Robert Sanders
A. This question is a cousin of one I answered earlier today. A narrow field of academic study can be likened to a local community. When someone of importance dies, the question for us becomes: Is it important that our readers know about it? Or just the other people in the community?
Who Writes His or Her Own Obituary?
Q. How many famous people write their own obits? Such as writers as an example. Or how about the rich and famous, do they hire others to writes their obits, before they die and can approve it. Just asking.
— Jessica Lucas
A. I would imagine that many famous people write their own obituaries — it's required to enter the seventh level of celebrity, I think — but none of them get published in The Times, where all our obits are staff written.
Speaking Ill of the Dead?
Q. How do you deal with the injunction against saying anything bad about a dead person?
— Carlo Cristofori, Italy
A. I suppose that depends on your definition of bad. Obituaries in The Times frequently refer to fiery tempers, marital infidelities, crimes committed — things that can be attested to in interviews or documented by news accounts or other sources. To disaparage a subject for disparagement's sake — "He was a liar and a cheapskate," his first wife said — wouldn't be appropriate or fair.
Obit Printed Twice
Q. I seem to recall that the day after The Times ran a relatively brief obituary of Harvey Kurtzman, the creative force behind Mad magazine, a much longer follow-up obituary was printed. It seemed as though the paper was admitting that it had underestimated Mr. Kurtzman's impact in its first obituary. Am I right? And how often does such a thing happen?
A. I went back and looked it up. Mr. Kurtzman died in February 1993, and the second obit wasn't longer, just corrected. Evidently some crucial errors in the obit appeared in some editions of the paper and rather than print a correction, the unusual decision was made to run the obit again.
When the Subject Outlives the Writer
Q. I'm always impressed and moved whenever I see an obituary written by a reporter who himself is no longer alive. Bob Hope's front-page obituary in 2003 written by the late Vincent Canby immediately comes to mind, which occurred nearly three years after Mr. Canby's own death. What do you consider when deciding to publish obituaries written by deceased Times staffers? Under what circumstance would you have assigned another staffer to rewrite Mr. Hope's obituary?
— Mark Abramowitz, Pittsburgh
A. Why would anyone wish to rewrite Vincent Canby? That said, advance obituaries are rewritten if they are out of date; that is, sometimes a subject lives many years past the time the obit is written and in that time achieves enough — or falls from grace — so the assessment of his life ought to be different.
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