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Talk to the Newsroom: Obituaries Editor Bill McDonald / New York Times – September 25, 2006

Mr. McDonald joined The Times in 1988 and has held a number of positions at the newspaper, including copy chief and assistant editor on the national desk; deputy editor and acting editor of Arts & Leisure; deputy culture editor; and as an editor on the investigations desk. He was part of the team that won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for the series “How Race Is Lived in America” and edited several other major Times projects. He became obituaries editor in February.

Pressure to Run a Person’s Obituary

Q. Since an obituary in the Times is a de facto statement that the person’s life had a wider impact than their immediate friends, family and co-workers, do you get pressure form surviving parties who believe their deceased person “deserves” an NYT obit? How/where do you draw the line?

— Jon Simmons, Indianapolis

A. All the time. Sometimes the pressure comes from a number of people — family members, friends, associates. There have been e-mail campaigns. I don’t really blame them. They’re writing on behalf of someone they loved, admired, respected — someone who undoubtedly accomplished much, honorably, touching many lives. And they’re writing in what can only be an emotional time. It is never easy having to tell them “no.” It is one of the least appealing parts of the job.

But we do draw lines, and we stick to them. The basic questions we ask are: Is this death national news? Did this person have such an impact on this world that his or her death is something our readers should be told about?

How do you measure impact? How do you determine significance? Not with a ruler or any other device. We use the only tool we have available: our judgment, informed by years of experience in journalism, lifetimes of reading, an awareness of the world, a sense of history. We carry that judgment around with us, and the Times pays us to use it well. One of the more encouraging experiences I’ve had in this job is corresponding with our publisher. If you want to talk about pressure, along comes an e-mail message from Arthur Sulzberger Jr. passing on an obit request from someone who knows the Sulzberger family. Knows them really well. It’s happened a handful of times.

You might think that such a missive from the publisher’s office would be a tacit suggestion to write about this person, or else. But Arthur has never done that. If he has ordered me to do anything, it’s been to use my best judgment. “Your call entirely,” he’ll say. And I believe him. And in some cases I’ve decided not to write the obit of the person who knows the publisher of The New York Times. (It’s a heady feeling, I must say.) And I still have my job.

I mention this not to ingratiate myself with the boss (although a modest raise would not be out of order). I mention it to make the point that, yes, we do make every effort to practice what we preach, from the top floor to the bottom. Everybody gets it here, or should, starting with the publisher. We make our judgments on the merits, pressure be darned. We draw our lines.

Having said that, I also have to acknowledge that we’re imperfect. Inevitably some worthy candidates for an obit fall through the cracks — people we mistakenly overlooked. We do give full consideration to any request. For starters, we look at what has been written about the deceased. If the individual had worked in a particular field, we look for a resident expert on the subject to give us an assessment — a doctor, say, or an economics professor. But sometimes we drop the ball. We have only so many hands, and sometimes we’re swamped. And sometimes we have no hands. After 9/11, when the staff was overworked, stretched thin and hammering out pages and pages of “Portraits of Grief,” those moving memorials to the victims, the man who wrote the screenplay to “The Days of Wine and Roses” died. He deserved a Times obit but didn’t get one. We just didn’t have a writer available. Our attention was distracted, as it happened, by too many other deaths.

The Toughest Part of the Job

Q. What is the hardest part about writing an obituary?

— John Baker

A. Excellent question. I’ve asked one of our writers, Margalit Fox, to answer it. Here she is:

What a deep, all-encompassing and serious question! Apart from the general rigors of writing on deadline, to which all daily newspaper writers are subject, obits exert their own peculiar set of pressures. The most keenly felt of these, I think, is the demand that each of us, every day, become an “instant expert” on any one of a range of subjects — from exploitation films to undersea cartography to textile conservation to automotive history to stamp collecting to skateboarding to endocrinology to library automation systems. (These are all real subjects about which I’ve written real obituaries in recent months.)

Obit writers don’t have the luxury most of our colleagues in the newsroom do of pounding a beat, be it banking or the Supreme Court or classical music, and really getting to know a single subject inside out. By contrast, we’re starting from zero most days, not only in terms of having to bone up on a new subject quickly, but also in terms of simply knowing whom to call — there is no Rolodex big enough to cover our possible contingencies, as when one has to find an expert on exotic chickens in the next 15 minutes. And, 9 times out of 10, the subject of the obituary your editor has just assigned you to write is someone you’ve never heard of before. So a great deal of precious writing time must be spent poring over yellowing news clippings, often at breakneck speed.

In short, our job is a great deal like being parachuted into terra incognita without so much as a map or compass, and having to emerge just a few hours later with an accurate (and, in an ideal world, engaging) account of the lay of the land.

Fortunately, our task is made easier these days by the Internet and by various online databases (the electronic equivalent of old-fashioned shoe leather), which allow us to home in on our subject, and on possible sources, fairly quickly. So all this — the ticking clock, the gun to the head, the constant cramming — is what every daily obit writer is going through each time he or she hits the keyboard. Tremendous pressure, yes. But, on the days when it works well, inhaling a stranger’s life through intensive study and exhaling it again onto the page — rapidly, accurately and, if one is very lucky, elegantly — is the most exhilarating feeling, and one of the greatest privileges, in the world.

Proofreading Your Own Obit

Q. Dear Kill Bill (had to agree this is good):
Do you ever let people for whom you have written an advanced obit look it over for accuracy and/or content?

— Barbara Pflaumer, Los Angeles

A. No.

Compilations of Times Obits

Q. Thank you and the other Obit writers for all of the impressive work you do to bring us big lives writ small. Two quick questions: The Daily Telegraph published a series of obit compilations a few years back. When can we expect the same from the NYTimes? Also, did your staff draft the small obits for the 9/11 victims? Are those available together somewhere?

— Name withheld

A. The Times did publish a compilation in 1997, called “The Last Word.” (William Morrow and Company was the hardback publisher.) It was edited by a predecessor of mine, Marvin Siegal, and Russell Baker wrote the foreword. The subtitle will give you a hint of his contents: “The New York Times Book of Obituaries and Farewells: A Celebration of Unusual Lives.” If you like to read obits, you’ll like this.

Another compilation was put together by a fan of the late great Times obit writer Robert McG. Thomas Jr. The title, “52 McGs.” (Many of Thomas’s obits are in “The Last Word” as well.)

As for the 9/11 victims, no, the Obit staff was not directly involved in that. The items, labeled “Portraits of Grief,” were not news obituaries, strictly speaking. They had more the flavor of memorials, striking emotional notes in a time when feelings were exceedingly raw. But yes, they were published in book form, too, by Times Books, under the title “Portraits: 9/11/01: The Collected ‘Portraits of Grief’ ” They are also posted on our Web site.

Maybe it’s time for another Times compilation. I’ll bring it up at the next board meeting. I’d even like to see one published annually, as a kind of year in review. I’ll bet it would sell well. I have a feeling that I’m not the only whose favorite part of the Oscars ceremony is when they memorialize the stars who died the preceding year. I love that stuff. …

The Skills Needed for Writing Obits

Q. In the Toronto Star recently there was an article on the Great Obituary Writers Conference and the long and unique history and art behind the crafting of an obituary.

Do you believe that writers need to have a knack for it? What secrets can you impart as to what makes an obituary tribute a “good” one?

–Richard Barrett, Toronto

A. A “knack” may be one way of putting it. Maybe it’s a certain passion that’s required. The best obit writers are natural storytellers, I think. They have to love making people come alive, as it were, through the use of narrative tension, rich detail and colorful anecdote. The obit page, after all, is a collection of stories, of people’s lives, some well known, some obscure. And unlike most newspaper stories, these have a satisfying narrative arc. As another editor here once put it, we not only get to say how the story began; we also get to say how it ended.

A good obit writer also has to have the curiosity and doggedness of a sleuth. A big, and satisfying, part of the job is simply digging into lives, researching where people came from, how they lived and what circumstances and influences made them into the people they became. Then the storyteller takes over, recognizing a narrative thread in all those facts and anecdotes and letting it unspool in a coherent and lively way. In some ways the best obits are ones that tell us about people we’ve never heard of and leave us sorry that we never got the chance to meet them.

Finally, good obit writers have to possess something of the historian in them. The writer should share what this paper has always had and what sets it apart, I think: a sense of history. (It’s no accident that when looking for an image to capture a historical moment, documentary filmmakers tend to show a picture of the front page of The New York Times.) Here in Obits, we choose our subjects in large measure by how they helped shape our world, for better or for worse. We may not use the word all that often, for fear of sounding pretentious, but “history” is not far from our thoughts as we go about our business of choosing which obits to write. A good obit writer has to recognize an individual’s place within the bigger historical picture.

Because our subjects are no more than a couple generations removed from us, often the history we’re taking note of was something we felt and remember. As the great Times columnist Russell Baker once put it beautifully: “It becomes routine to arrive at the obituaries and find another part of your past has been moved out during the night.”

Keeping a Death Watch

Q. Do you monitor the declining health of notables to be ready for their death?

–Mike, Verona, N.J.

A. To the extent that we can, yes, absolutely. We don’t check anyone’s pulse, of course, but we do rely on an informal early-warning network. Most of our informants are Times reporters. Unlike some of us, they actually get to leave the Times building and circulate in the world, so they’ll often pass the word, in by-the-way fashion, that so-and-so is ailing or maybe just not looking very good. We then check to see if the advance obit is, conversely, in good shape. If not, we may need to update or revise. And of course if we discover there is no advance obit about so-and-so, we feel a twinge of panic and get moving on it.

Sometimes our best efforts to assign a hurry-up advance aren’t enough. In two cases this year, the subjects died before the advances could be written. The reporters involved had a lot of work on their plates, dragged their feet a bit and were beaten to the punch, if you can forgive that stew of metaphors. When one subject died unexpectedly, we were forced to use wire copy on a Saturday night. (The Associated Press and other agencies do a good job on obits, but we prefer to use our own writers where possible.) In the other case we scrambled, published a quick and dirty version written on deadline for the Web site and the late editions of a Monday paper and later ran a more rounded, better-crafted version for the Web site and the complete run of the Tuesday paper. That’s too much work, though. Having the advance ready to go eliminates the frenzy and prevents factual errors from being introduced in haste.

Equality in Coverage

Q. I love the obituaries. After the front page headlines, they are the part of the paper I turn to first. I am religious about it. Perhaps, I am looking for myself? I can honestly tell you that I read all the obituaries every day (particularly now that I read the Times on the Web) – and that there is no other section of the paper I follow as rigorously (or addictively). What always interests me, of course, is what each person on the list had that made them NYT obituary worthy. But what also interests me is the ratio of men to women that are deemed significant. My sense is more women are written about today than 10 or 15 years ago, but still there is hardly gender parity in this beat. I’d say that for every 8 or 9 obituaries of men, there’s perhaps one or two of a woman.

So here’s the question: Do you have an “affirmative action” policy for women in obituaries? How do you explain the difference in numbers of men vs. women in your own mind? Is the NYT working on a policy to achieve parity? Or do you see the lower percentage of women in obituaries as an accurate reflection of women’s lesser power and standing in our culture? Thanks so much for the opportunity to ask this question. You’re the only editor I am interested in writing to! By the way, one reason I also read the obits is they are very well written; we might even say, you’re the steward for some of the best writing in the paper.

— Ann Sussman, Acton, Mass.

A. First, thanks for your kind words. It’s immensely gratifying for all of us here to know that our readership is large and enthusiastic (as evidenced by the blizzard of e-mail messages I’ve received in just the last day). But to your larger, and very good, question about the relative representation of women in our pages:

Ask me in another generation.

Really. The people whose obits are appearing in our pages now largely shaped the world of the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, and the movers and shakers in those eras were predominantly white men. Those generations of white men are now passing from the scene; hence you’re seeing a disproportionate number of them. In a generation or less, I suspect that the Obits pages (no doubt entirely digital by then) will be filled with stories of women and members of minorities who made contributions at a time when the world finally allowed them to.

We’re actually starting to see this. I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of obits about people, mostly African-American, who were involved in the civil rights movement. I’m sure that if you looked at the obit pages of yesteryear and kept going back — through the 80’s, the 70’s, the 60’s, and so on — you’d see the number of black faces on those pages dwindling to virtually none.

One of our writers has a wonderful metaphor for what the Obit page is: to her, it’s a sliding glass that is always inching forward as it offers glimpses of the past but that always lags several decades behind us. To me, the Obit page is not a reflection of the times in which we live. It’s a mirror on a past that is slipping away.

Who Buried the Obits on the Web?

Q. You’d probably agree with me on this. Why did the redesigned Web site downplay the obit teaser? It’s so hard to find now. I read the Times online (I’m a Times Select subscriber) and I’m sure I’m not the only online reader who clicks on the day’s obits first. The link used to be prominent, like Opinion and Business; now it’s relegated to subhead status. What gives? I know, they’re dead and all, but it still matters.

— Max Alexander, South Thomaston, Me.

A. You guessed right. I do agree with you. It’s been a sore point with the Obits staff, too. Our Web colleagues, fine folks that they are, buried the link for Obits — a news department, mind you — down among the crossword puzzles and cartoons on the left side of the new home page. This is not to take anything away from puzzle writers and cartoonists — geniuses in their own right. But we, in Obits, do sometimes feel a Dangerfield routine coming on. (Who’s dead, by the way — October 2004; we did 959 words.) As you say, we’re a first-read for untold legions. On that basis alone we deserve more respect. Ditto the Times magazine, the Week in Review, the Public Editor and other respectable components of this enterprise: They’ve also been stuck in the bleacher seats with us.

But maybe your query will be the necessary spur for change.

When the Writer’s Obit Precedes That of the Subject

Q. I recently read the obituary for James Van Allen, who died in August at age 91. I was dismayed to see the byline at the end that mentioned that the person who wrote the obituary had himself died in 1996. I understand the need to write obituaries in advance, but was there really no need to update Van Allen’s tribute for over 10 years?

— Betsy Burton

A. It’s a sensible question. As it happened, we actually did update the obit with the details of Dr. Van Allen’s death; they were added by an editor, in the paragraphs that preceded the byline. At least, that’s the way it was presented in the printed pages of the newspaper (see an Adobe Acrobat PDF file of that day’s page). Everything under the byline was written in the mid-1990’s by Walter Sullivan, who was a prominent and well-respected science editor and writer at The Times. The Web version didn’t make the distinction clearly, and we’ll have to work on better ways to do that.

But more to your point: This was an exceedingly rare case of our using the byline of an obit writer who was himself deceased. As I mentioned earlier in response to another question, we maintain a large bank of obituaries written in advance, some of which outlive their authors, as this one did. In most cases we do not use an obituary whose author is deceased; we have it rewritten. But in some instances the author was so prominent or such an authority in his field that we feel the original obit is worth preserving. Walter Sullivan was such a journalist. Having covered the space age from its earliest days, he brought to the obit a depth of knowledge, experience and perspective that we felt was too valuable to discard.

When Bob Hope died, the obituary we had on hand had been written by Vincent Canby, who by then was also dead. But we chose to publish the obit, using a similar presentation, because Canby was one of the nation’s most thoughtful and respected film and theater critics. In each case we chose to stick with the original obit not to honor one of our own but because we thought our readers would truly benefit from his words, even if we had to resurrect them.

Obituaries Written in Advance

Q. I’ve always wondered how such extensive obits get written so quickly. Does the newspaper pre-write pieces on certain people and have them on file? If so, how many of these are there?

— Patrick Soran

A. A number of readers have asked that question or something like it. Some of our obits — most of them, actually — are indeed written quickly, in a day’s time or less. We have three full-time writers who devote most of their time to writing what we call “daily” obituaries. These can be anywhere from 200 words to 1,000 words, or even more, and they’re done on deadline, from scratch, requiring solid research and reporting and fact-checking in fairly short order.

But most of our truly extensive obits are, as you suspect, written in advance. We have about 1,200 on file, and we replenish and update that library all the time. The reason is obvious. We could never produce a comprehensive, well-researched, well-crafted 5,000-word biography of a head of state, say, or a literary giant, in a day’s time or less. And yet our print readers would expect to see such an effort from The Times in their morning papers the day after a major figure died. Our Web readers would probably expect to see the same in minutes. So we do the obits ahead of time. Have to, if we’re going to be the paper we want to be.

A big part of my job is to assign these “advances” so that the obit is ready when the big moment arrives. (Before publication, we’ll do some minor updating if needed and, of course, supply the particulars of the death — the when and the where.) The advances are written by an extensive roster of writers. Some are on the Obits staff itself; many more are from the wider newsroom staff; and still others are outside authorities and freelance writers. The advance obits run from about 1,000 words in length to about 10,000 words. You can assume the person who gets 10,000 is more important than the one with 1,000.

The world is vast, and to know whom to write about, and when, is a challenge. It’s not hard to figure out that we’ll need advance obits on the truly great and famous, particularly as they age. But there are artists and scientists and authors and investment bankers and diplomats and athletes who may not be household names to everyone but who, because of their stature, merit an advance obit — again, simply because we couldn’t do their stories justice on short notice. As a result, much of my time is spent thinking about who we don’t have on file but should — especially if the person is getting old fast. Luckily, the paper doesn’t have to rely on my limited store of knowledge. There are hundreds of experts on various subjects walking the drafty halls of The Times, so I reach out to them for suggestions.

The odd thing about these advances is that they, too, age. Sometimes they sit around in our bins for a decade or more, not quite decomposing, but you get the idea. The subject, it seems, has also refused to budge. Our oldest is from 1982. The man it’s about is still alive; the writer who wrote it is dead. There may be some kind of weird poetic justice there, but I’ll leave that to the ironists.

How Early is Too Early?

Q. Dear (Kill) Bill,
Oprah, Ellen, Richard Pryor, Belushi and, well Regis. How far in advance do you prepare the obit? And that lead-time is a function of what?

— Arnold Tracey

A. “Kill Bill”: That’s a new one. Not bad.

But: How far in advance. That’s a good, tricky question. This is probably one of the only newspaper editing jobs in the country in which you have to think like an actuary. So age, yes; health, yes; external risk factors, yes (a well-known mobster might get one earlier in the game). But prominence is also a major consideration. We wouldn’t necessarily wait for an ex-president of the United States to write his memoirs before assigning the “advance.” We might jump on that one while he’s in office, just in case.

But we also have to be mindful of not writing the obit prematurely. Mark Twain said something memorable about that, but that’s not what I mean. I mean we don’t necessarily want to write the advance obit while the subject is still in full flower, is still out there adding to his or her legacy, doing things, building things, making things. We’d rather write about them when their essential work — that which they’ll be remembered for — is done. Otherwise the obit is likely to grow old and stale and require a rewrite 10 years down the road. Why bother now?

The risk, of course, is lightning, the proverbial bus, a chance encounter with a shark or sudden illness. By holding off on the advance obit, you roll the dice and hope something sudden doesn’t happen that will make you regret your decision to wait.

But this leads to probably one of the biggest factors we weigh: what is humanly possible. We do more advance obits, by far, than most news organizations, but even then our resources are limited. We try to write as many as we can, but there are inevitably many we can’t get to — or can’t get to yet. So we have to approach the task as battlefield triage — tending to the most aged and the supremely important first, and then hoping the others can hang on a little longer until we can get to them.

You Do What?

Q. Goodness. The Obituary Editor. What do people say when they meet you and you tell them your job?

— Mary Kay Radnich

A. A range of responses. Sometimes it’s “Oh, that’s, um (long pause) interesting,” accompanied by an anxious expression, as if I were wearing a black hood and cape. Others — usually among our millions of devoted readers — will say, “Cool!”

I like that one better.

Praise for the Obits

Q. This is not a question, except maybe to ask how you guys got to be so good. The NYT obits are almost always excellent pieces of writing, and teach your readers about some amazing and inspiring lives. The obituaries are one of my favorite parts of the Times. I assume you compile information about prominent people, and probably write bios, long before their deaths, then update them as needed. Thank you for a job well done.

— David Rogers

A. Thanks so much for your e-mail message. We’re pleased, flattered and honored. (One of the joys of my job is that I get to read all this fascinating material all day long and get paid for it.) And yes, we do write many obituaries in advance. We have about 1,200 at the moment, and there’s never an end to them; they’re on the verge of spilling out of our file drawers. (Not to worry; we have electronic versions, too.) But I see that a number of readers are asking about the “advances” as well, so perhaps I’ll devote a separate reply to this. Meanwhile, I want my bosses to see your e-mail message promptly, so I’ll post it now and get back to you.

Deciding Which Deaths to Cover

Q. What determines who your obituaries cover and who they don’t cover? Although I am saddened by people’s death, I enjoy reading the Times’s obituaries because they often provide interesting – and sometimes fascinating snippets of personal esoterica. I liked both Erik Nagourney’s obituaries and Margot (cannot remember her last name). I am a long-time and supremely loyal New York Times reader and subscriber, formerly of the Upper West Side, now residing in Dallas, Texas.

— Maxine Levy

A. We look for subjects who made a singular contribution to the wider society or some corner of it. The demands on our space are great, and the space is limited. So every day we have to make judgment calls about whose death, and life, would be of interest to a national readership. And that means we have so say no to a great number of people who may have led honorable, successful and accomplished lives but whose deaths, we feel, are not national news.

That’s no disrespect toward those good people; we don’t presume to judge the worthiness of anyone’s life. We do, however, judge their newsworthiness — that’s our job. And an obit, like any other item in the paper, is, foremost, news. It’s not a tribute or a memorial. The Sports Desk and the Foreign Desk and the Science Desk every day choose what to cover and what to report, using essentially the same yardstick of significance. So does the Obituary Department. The difference, I suppose, is that the news in an obit mostly resides in the first two paragraphs (who died, what’s the person’s significance, where did the death occur, when, and why — the cause). The rest, as they say, is history, or the fascinating part of it that’s known as biography.

And I can’t agree more with your kudos. Eric Nagourney does excellent work, and Margalit Fox is one of our best obituary writers — and she has the fan mail to prove it.

Ignoring the Island

Q. I notice that you often omit obits of well known Long Islanders. Doesn’t anyone read Newsday ?

A. We do read Newsday. In fact, two of us in the Obituaries Department used to work at Newsday. We have no bias against Long Island, I can assure you. And though I haven’t done the research on it, I would guess that a good many of our obituary subjects over the years have come from Long Island.

But geography is not one of our criteria in choosing obituary subjects. We look to write about people who have left a significant mark on this world, regardless of where they live. Kings and presidents and movie stars and Pulitzer Prize winners qualify, naturally; but so does the scholar who made quiet but major strides in his or her field, or the businessman who created a company that made a product that touched the lives of millions.

Naturally we’re drawn to a good yarn, but even then the subject has to pass the “significance” test (in which, I might add, no science is involved). On Sunday we published the obituary of a woman who, before working on a Lockheed assembly line and teaching French, had “defied death” by spying on the Nazis in wartime France. Her exploits were the stuff of movies. We recently ran the obit of a relatively obscure man who had, all the same, a huge impact on the postwar dinner table, particularly those involving kids. Here was the lead, by Douglas Martin:

“Robert C. Baker, an agricultural scientist who looked at chickens and envisioned chicken nuggets, not to mention chicken hotdogs, helping transform what is now a $29 billion poultry industry, died on Monday at his home in North Lansing, N.Y. He was 84.”

Now, if North Lansing had been on Long Island, we would still have published that.

One thing to remember is that The Times has a broad national readership. We accordingly choose subjects whose deaths, we believe, would be of interest to a national audience — in short, deaths that are national news. Newsday, though excellent in what it does, is primarily a regional paper, with a different mission. For Newsday, geography does matter, just as it does for any local paper. Part of its mission is to tell its readers about the deaths of their more prominent neighbors, in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. They’re performing a valuable journalistic and even social function. But it’s one we can’t do, given our limited resources and newsprint space and our 50-state mandate.

To put it another way, the whole country is our neighborhood, and that’s a lot of people, so we have to be very selective.

Stop. Stop. You’re Killin’ Me

Q. Do you consider your position a dead end job? (Had to ask.)

— Steve Zane

A. I’m actually glad you asked. I’ve been getting questions in a similar vein (not the jugular) almost since the day I took the job. Someone asked me if we aspire to deathless prose. A colleague asked if we’ve ever buried a lead. But to answer your question, no, I actually think of it as a job made in heaven.

Written by Marisol García

July 26, 2009 at 5:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

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