New York Times Has 1,200 Advance Obits In The Can

In a new feature up on mediabistro, New York Times obituaries editor Bill McDonald pulls back the thin black veil, if only slightly, on the obit-writing process — and it doesn’t sound terribly dissimilar to how Dana Carvey‘s Tom Brokaw handled Gerald Ford:

Despite the potential for awkwardness, anticipation is key when it comes to producing obituaries for major figures. “You have to maintain a bank of advance obits in order to have length and depth and fact-checking,” McDonald explains. “It would be impossible to write on deadline otherwise.” The Times itself boasts a bank of over 1,200 such “advancers” — the oldest was penned back in 1982, also a case where the subject has outlived the author — and they are constantly refreshing the copy. “Some become obsolete and have to be rewritten,” says McDonald. “And some are fine, they get a minor dusting and in the paper they go.”

Prepping obituaries for important figures in advance is crucial because it eliminates the frenzy of creating them at the last minute and prevents factual errors from being introduced in haste. “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,” says McDonald. “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.”

But with so many people to cover, how do they decide which ones to tackle first? One way major news outlets like the Times and the Post make the call is by monitoring the declining health of notables, as well as other factors including age, external risks and prominence. McDonald likens this challenge to “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.”

  • Death Goes Digital