The obit is dead

Dateline: Thu 20 Aug 2009

With the news that Gannett plans to contract with Wave 2, a British-based compamy, to automate its obituaries -- a customer will simply use a template provided by Gannett/Wave 2 to fill in the blanks, then, in effect, self-publish the piece online -- we mark the passing of the obituary.

But before we go there, more facts, courtesy of Gannettoid:

"Gannett is prepared to begin launching self-publishing obituary publishing at its newspapers.

According to a memo sent Monday from Annette Gould, Gannett's manager of advertising technology, and obtained from a source within the Interstate Group’s production arm, The Indianapolis Star will be the first site, with a scheduled transition for the week of Sept. 7."

If you have  more questions, Gannettoid has most of the details.

Back to the obituary.

My first job at a newspaper -- the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette -- in 1969 was obituary writer. I was taking over this position from another young woman, single, who had a certain flair for the dramatic (in writing about a prolific mink at a mink farm, her lead was "No. 51208 is really going to town." This was about as racy as you could get then, and that story, and many other efforts, landed the previous obit writer a job at a tabloid newspaper in Toronto. She was going to make $300 plus a week, writing about movie stars, freaks of nature and Martians; I was making $95 or so.

"But she will never work for another real newsaper again," a colleague warned, darkly.

Little did we know then that "real newspapers" were in the early throes of their own death.

Writing obituaries was rewarding, in an OCD type of way: reporters received phone calls daily from funeral homes -- or placed the calls ourselves, to funeral homes less proactive -- with pertinent. standaridized info about the deceased. We took this info over the phone, pecking away at an old manual typewriter.

Then we got on the phone and verified all the facts (with a family member, ideally.) We then returned to typewriter and composed the most dull but somber little story imaginable, with a certain format: if the Journal was telling the obit for the first time, one began with, "Mary Sunshine died" but if the competitor, the News Sentinel, had gotten the jump,  the first sentence was, "Services for Mary Sunshine will be etc."

So it went, an endless succession of grey days. There was no drama; I always expected a family member to break down in weeping when I called. Nobody ever did. Sometimes, the funeral home would warn: "do not call family," and as best as I can recall, this was in the case of a particularly tragic death -- a young child or a teenager or a murder or suicide.At any rate, this was a rule not to be violated, and so it never was.

The most interesting part about this exercise is that it taught you accuracy; names, always including at least a middle iniitial, place of birth, dates, addressess, church or temple names, etc etc etc.

The second most interesting aspect was collecting the names of the deceased: "Robert 'Bobby Pee Wee' Sanders" "Pearl Opal Gentry" "Clithoria Armistace" "Johnny 'Big Dadda' Jones."

Now, Gannett and this brilliant English company has made obsolute what was the beginning job in journalism for many reporters, but in fact, it's been obsolete for a long time.

More a bit later on the history of the obit -- fascinating -- and some stories of REAL obit writers. Can you imagine doing that job for life? Some did.

Here's the Gannettoid link:







John Howard [unverified] said:

When my mother passed, the person at the funeral home went to her computer, typed in the obit, we reviewed a printed copy, and she submitted directly to the Star's database.

I was not aware they still had anyone writing obits. Judged by the oft-jumbled name headings found online, it has always appeared to be purely automated, albeit very badly.

It has been several months now since they ended the practice of putting a column of obits for famous or notable people in the online obit page.

2009-08-20 07:22:32

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

At my first weekly newspaper job, I wrote obits, school board stories, court stuff, chicken-dinner news, social news...everything. We didn't have enough staff to specialize. And if you had the misfortune to die on the wrong day of the week, it might be ten days before your fellow townsfolk knew about your passing.

You're absolutely right about obits. It teaches respect, honor for the deceased and their family, accuracy, and, in a wierd way, humor. You have to have a small amount of gallows humor sometimes, like the obit I wrote about a guy named Thad Thallman. His middle name was Theodonius. I kid you not. The funeral director who called me started giggling, and then I joined in, and we knew that somewhere, Thad's mom was having that last cosmic laugh herself. Yeth she was.

I also learned that obits are the most-read part of smalltown papers, and that you'd better spell their name correctly. And get their pertinent facts straight. So we called every single family every single time to confirm the funeral home's information. Sometimes, there'd be a quarrel among survivors about certain facts, and you'd get embroiled in this decades-old family nonsense. But we confirmed.

The best part of my first newspaper job was: as soon as I got done with obits, it was on to rewriting area dailies' news, and then on to something else. It was never dull.

And all this reminds me of my first task in an IU j-class. My favorite teacher in the world, 4 ft-4 inch Marlboro chain-smoking Holly Arpan, who specilized in grammar, made us write our own obit the first day in class. I still have mine. What a gut-buster.

I was, at 19, quite impressed with my worldliness. Full of myself.

But I got an "A" form Ms. Arpan. Her husband, Floyd, ran the world-reknowned Foreign Journalists Program for the State Department, and her insights were filled with his observations. Pithy remarks like:

"You know Chinese journalists, such as they are, never write obits. They think it jinxes you. They leave that to Hindu priests, and those SOBs think everyone's a saint."

Holly had her ways.

2009-08-20 07:48:34

StarStruck [unverified] said:

A couple of years ago one of my cousins died and the family put me in charge of getting the obit into the Star, since I was an employee. I went to the Classified dept. where I was given a form to fill out and introduced to a young man who would "write" the obit. I told him I worked in the building and that I would like to see a proof of the obit before it went in. I gave him my phone number and interoffice email address. I also specified it was to run on a Saturday, instead of Friday which would have been the next available deadline day. He said OK.

The obit ran on Friday, I was not given a call, let alone a proof, they put the wrong name in on second reference ("Pam" instead of "Patty"), and there were a couple of other things wrong that could have been corrected IF HE HAD BOTHERED TO CONTACT ME. I immediately went to his supervisor who is head of Classified (I forget her name) and she argued that, hey, people make mistakes, and a corrected version would get in on Saturday. Again, I asked for a proof. Again, I did not get one, or a call. Fortunately, the obit was correct in Saturday's paper.

Could all of this have been avoided? Of course, with a little COMMUNICATION and professionalism. Maybe self-pub obits ARE a good idea after all! Of course, the other problem with self-pubs is that fake obits could creep back into the paper. There were some doozies in days of old, before they made funeral homes accountable.

2009-08-20 07:56:24

Christopher Lloyd [unverified] said:

In nearly eight years of working for a New York Times-owned daily in Florida, the only time I ever got a story of mine picked up and run in the flagship paper was an obit of a film actress.

2009-08-20 08:18:06

ruthholl [Member] said:

These are excellent stories and observations. Thanks for the memories...
As to how the obits make it into print today, it seems to be a bit of a muddle, as StarStruck observes, and John Howard questions.
I know retired News reporter Art Harris observed, "The obits (today) read as if they are written by monkies," which in fact, they are not. They are often written by readers -- and some are awful -- but others apparently are assembled by the customer rep people at the Star, it seems.
My question: will those folks therefore be out of a job? Some of them, probably.
Also, I read about Wave2's products. These guys have created a way to bypass the tradional ad sales people -- you no longer need an ad person to help assemble copy, work with art dept, send it back to client for endless time-consuming revisions etc. Instead, the client will simply design and write his/her own ad, with the help of Wave software.
Goodbye, jobs. Hello, future.
Think of the implications of this...

2009-08-20 08:59:11

hendy [Member] said:

I'll be a civilian critic. I read the obits online now that I've moved south. If the IndyStar loses these, then it's the final reason I go to their site altogether.

I have to go to the LA Times (now worse than it was) to get national obits.

The sales department rules. Listening to customers means listening to advertisers-- not the people that consume the newspaper product.

The ethics and ethos there are dead. Long live the Indianapolis Star and News. Welcome to total corporate banality. May the best stock price win.

2009-08-20 10:26:54

Whitebeard [unverified] said:

So, you made a whopping $95 bucks a week, Ruth?
When I started in 1974, I pulled in an impressive $110 a week. That newspaper paid me $10 a week more than women who had the same jobs. It was my first "in-your-face" encounter with gender discrimination. And this injustice made me as mad as a right-wing psychonut at a health care town hall.

When I worked at a very small daily newspaper, family members would be allowed to come into the newsroom and tell us the story (for the obit) of their loved one who had died. This had us serving as grief counselors for many of those folks. But I didn't mind it. Actually, my co-dependent psyche (at that time) loved it.

Everything changes and nothing lasts except the grace of God.

2009-08-20 15:28:17

ruthholl [Member] said:

Amen to all that, Whitebeard -- altho bread isn't half bad, either.
You had a j-degree, right? I was just a punk with a major in English literature and a ferocious romanticism and dedication to the craft I knew nothing of. Save that my father had died at his desk, speaking of obits.
I used to love what Dick Hopper said, as he would cut and paste -- he was a copy editor after setting linotype in his first job: "To think, they pay us for this!" It was a bit like being back in grade school, but much more fun, with alcohol on the side.
Love the story about grief counseling. God, there's got to be a great novella/sit-com in that scenario. I'll just call you Miss Lonelyhearts from now on.

2009-08-20 17:18:56

Whitebeard [unverified] said:

Yeah, Ruth, I had the J-education. I was a Eugene C. Pulliam Scholar. Whoop-de-doo.

What you wrote reminded me of those big glue pots everyone used to have on their desks. It was LITERALLY cut and paste back then (smile).

I've probably already bored everyone under age 50 with this post.

Working on small-town papers was a lot of fun. Especially when farmers would bring in various types of vegetables they contended looked like famous people. One old guy brought in a gourd that he said looked like Richard Nixon - and I swear he was right: nose and all!

I remember taking a photo of a large vegetable and its proud owner on the same afternoon I interviewed (former U.S. Senator) Vance Hartke. Lots of variety in that job.

Those were the days.....

2009-08-21 00:47:12

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Whitebeard, I feel ya.

Smalltown journalism taught us versatility. And patience. And I'll tell you what--smalltown Hoosiers read every word written. Every edition. Chicken dinner new, obits, weddings (God, I hated weddings--moms always wanted more detail), high school sports, 4H ribbons.....

Funny thing is, my observation was that those folks could also pass a quiz on major world event, too. The habit of really READING a newspaper spilled over to the nearest metro paper, also.

My gourd story was hilarious. Jimmy Durante, the last day. It looks just like Jimmy. So I took the pic and ran it inside the paper. And immediately got five calls about running an obscene pic of some guy's, uh, private parts.

And so it goes. One person's nose is another person's penis.

2009-08-21 05:50:17

ruthholl [Member] said:

God, funny...both of you. More tk. Have to run, but I have a few of those stories, too...

2009-08-21 06:58:48

John Howard [unverified] said:

Call it an odd coincidence, but I mentioned above that the obits section for famous folks has been MIA for several months from the IndyStar site and - SHAZAAM - the very next day it is returned to its long-empty center-column space.

2009-08-21 07:33:06

B2 [unverified] said:

Fresh out of IU, I made $119 per week when I started full-time at The Star in 1971 (I'd been there part-time previously while working my way through school). That was about $6k per year. It wasn't much and I didn't care. Working for the newspaper was absolutely intoxicating (as were several of the older writers I worked with, but that's another story). I remember that they doled out merit raises of $5 per week and you thought you'd been handed gold.

I used to "supplement" my income by competing vigorously (and imaginatively) for the $2 bills Gene Jr. would award for clever headlines.

BTW, when my mother died in the spring, I made certain I wrote every word of her obit, leaving nothing to chance. But for a young reporter back in the day, obit writing was an invaluable tool for teaching the importance of absolute accuracy.

Those were the days my friend. We thought they'd never end.

But they did.

2009-08-21 14:26:47

B2 [unverified] said:

Reading about paste pots reminds me of one more story ... about the deadline-stressed sports slot man who (in the days before air conditioning) became so angry that he heaved a paste-pot out the open window along New York Street ... and hit Charlie Griffo on the sidewalk below.

2009-08-21 14:49:11

Whitebeard [unverified] said:

Oh my Lord, TTT and B2. Your hilarious memories have brought up so many hilarious memories for me.

There was this photographer who worked at my small daily newspaper and he was known to inbibe quite regularly. This was back in the day when almost everybody in the newsroom smoked cigarettes and the building was filled with a haze of smoke.

This guy, in his 50s at the time, would frequently toss lit cigarettes into his trash can. One day the entire contents of the trash can caught fire and he tried to put it out by sticking his leg into the can and stomping down the fire. But then he caught his sock and pant leg on fire and began jumping up and down around the newsroom with the trash can attached. It looked like something out of a Monty Python episode! A quick-thinking young reporter had to pull a fire extinguisher off the wall and put out the blaze.

Next day, the photog was once again back to tossing lit cigs into his trash can. He was absolutely unrepentant.

Okay.okay....I know that this has nothing to do with obits, but I don't think Ruth will shoot me for it (smile).

2009-08-21 15:36:16

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