Friday, February 27, 2009

Writing Our Own Obits

The first thing they have you write in journalism school is an obituary. There are many reasons for that. An obituary has a lot of facts, like dates and names. And a lot of what we do as reporters is collect facts and write stories based on them. Also, most obituaries are basic in form, adhere to the same simple structure, so they are a good starting point for student journalists. I'm sure professors love it when a student tries to fancy up an obituary in order to show off their writing, because it always gives them an example to use of how not to write an obituary. But the most important reason they had us write obituaries was to teach us accuracy, because an obit might be the only time the deceased person's name appeared in print, and that name damn well better be spelled right. There was no tomorrow, no second chance to get it right, with a dead person.

I was thinking about all this on Friday as I sat in a baseball press box and tried unsuccessfully to remain interested in the game taking place on the field below. I was thinking about the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, which printed its final edition on Friday. I was writing an inning-by-inning blog for my newspaper, but couldn't sustain my interest in the game as I watched one video after another showing the Denver paper's moment of death. The names of every member of the paper's newsroom are shown at the end of one video, and I recognized several as reporters and editors I had either worked with, or alongside, over the past 30 years. My seat assignment in the Philadelphia press box at last year's World Series was next to one belonging to the reporter who was covering it for the Rocky Mountain News. I remember us talking before one of the games about how our business was in serious trouble, like nothing we could have ever imagined.

I wanted to be a reporter from the time I was 12 and wrote my own neighborhood newspaper -- wrote it out in long-hand ink, bound the pages with beige masking tape, and sold it for a nickel. Then it was the high school newspaper, followed by my college newspaper and, during that time, my very first byline in an honest-to-God daily newspaper. I don't know how many times I picked up that paper with my article in it, just to be sure my name hadn't slipped off the page somehow. I was so proud. Having since written too many stories to count -- thousands upon thousands of stories on every topic from the Sandinista jungle conflict in Central America in the early 1980s to dressing up like a woman and describing the experience during the "Tootsie" movie craze -- I gave up looking at my byline long ago. It's only a name, after all.

Now newspapers are dying, at least as we've known them, and there's widespread tension and heartache in my business.

It's funny almost, because now I remember exactly where I was and where I sat when I practiced writing obituaries in my first journalism class. It was in a dimly lit classroom in an old brick building. The professor wrote out the facts -- the name of deceased, his or her survivors, the date and time of the funeral, etc. -- on a chalk blackboard. For the next 30 minutes or so, we would type the obituary on a manual typewriter as best we knew how.

Now, typewriters and chalk blackboards are extinct, just like newspapers are becoming. And here we are, writing their obits, not on typewriters anymore.


  1. My daughter is a newspaper editor. I have heard much on this subject and feel sad we may see their actual demise in my lifetime. They are such a part of my culture, my days of growing up, read all about it...

  2. I was just considering this the other day, as I heard about several more magazines packing it in. The lot of us continue blogging and I wonder how long it will be before the advertising and syndication kicks in on all of the little blogs, too.

  3. I have been watching with sadness over the last year at the signs of impending demise for some newspapers AND television stations. I think this is going to be a bad year for them. It's a shame.

    This post brought up some old memories of college newswriting classes and my teenaged years in hometown radio where I read many obituaries on the air. You're right. You'd better darn well get that name right.

  4. What do you think of this whole line about newspapers becoming purely their online seems astonishing that the papers could disappear like that.

  5. The irony is that readership is actually up due to the combination of print and online. But papers derive most of their revenue from print advertising and subscription rates and haven't found a way to generate nearly as much money off the internet, where users read us for nothing. Then again, local TV used to be free and isn't anymore. And if people are willing to pay for bottled tap water, it shows they might be willing to pay for anything. So I guess there's hope.


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