Sunday, February 21, 2010

NYT's Obit Policy: We Run Them Whenever We Get Around To It. Hey, It's Not Like The Subject's Gonna Call And Complain.

When it comes to obituaries, the NYT is not so much the Newspaper of Record as it is the Newspaper Of Whenever We Get Around To It.

Of the 16 obituaries published by the NYT in the last week, eight were of people who died more than a week before the obit appeared -- and whose deaths had already been noted in newspapers elsewhere, several days earlier.

From today's obits:

Georgelle Hirliman, the "Writer In The Window" lady whose obit appears in today's NYT, died on January 29 -- and her death was noted in the Santa Fe New Mexican on February 7, two weeks ago.

Allan Kornblum, a former FBI counsel, died on February 12 -- and the Washington Post reported it on February 14, a week ago. (An added oddity: the NYT website says Kornblum's obit appears on page A24 of today's paper, but it isn't there.)

And on and on.

In other words, the reason for the delay in reporting the deaths of these prominent people isn't that no one knew they were dead.

In every instance, these deaths had been reported several days (or, in some instances, more than a week) earlier by other publications, including prominent places like the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post -- and in one case, in the NYT's own paid death notices.

Is the NYT obit team seriously so lazy that it ignores the obits in other major newspapers, and doesn't even bother to look at the death notices in the NYT itself? Yikes.

The NYT obituaries pages have been posing a problem for the paper in other ways recently -- remember last year's kerfuffle over multiple mistakes in Walter Cronkite's obit, which presumably had been prepared years earlier. Readers of the corrections column have likely noted errors in obituaries appearing on a regular basis.

But the lax attitude of the NYT obituaries page towards promptness is a more subtle, but more fundamental problem -- one that suggests that the obit desk doesn't exactly view itself as a deadline operation.

As regular readers know, the newspaper of record often behaves as though something isn't news until it has been reported on in its pages. And in no case this week did the NYT cite the fact that these deaths were first reported elsewhere.

The NYTPicker recently noted that the NYT has recently published several stories about the Toyota scandal -- repeating anecdotes and facts first published in the Los Angeles Times -- without any credit to the paper for its scoops.

And, of course, the resignation of reporter Zachery Kouwe appears to have had at least something to do with a failure to credit other publications for getting to a story first.

It's an attitude of superiority that suggests a belief that it hasn't happened until the NYT prints it.

But with death, sadly, that just ain't the case.

Here's a list of the rest of this week's we-just-got-around-to-it obits:

Ralph McInerny, Notre Dame professor and prolific author
date of death: January 29
date of NYT obit: February 17
death first reported: Los Angeles Times, February 7

Howard Lotsof, leader of ibogaine movement
date of death: January 31
date of NYT obit: February 18
death first reported: Staten Island Advance, February 5

Rex Nettleford, Jamaican scholar at University of West Indies
date of death: February 2
date of NYT obit: February 17
death first reported: Los Angeles Times, February 5

Donald E. Welsh, publishing executive
date of death: February 6
date of NYT obit: February 19
death first reported: NYT paid death notices, February 14

Gareth Wigan, prominent movie-studio executive
date of death: February 13
date of NYT obit: February 19
death first reported: Nikki Finke's Deadline blog, February 13

Carl Kaysen, negotiator of nuclear test-ban treaty
date of death: February 8
date of NYT obit: February 20
death first reported: Boston Globe, February 9


Anonymous said...

Oh, I think a week or even two is fair game. Unless it's the CEO of a publicly traded company, I don't need to know about the death immediately. I would rather wait for a well-written story by a reporter who has time to get some real anecdotes that contribute to our knowledge.

Plus, it's clear that the newspaper column space meisters isn't always generous with the obit section. If a reporter puts in the time to write a good obit, I think they should feel proud run it within a month of the death. Yup. A full month. I'm choosing good writing over timeliness. I realize this is the opposite of what the Twitter generation expects, but I think everyone will ultimately enjoy some quality writing that deserves more than 140 characters.

Anonymous said...

It's so annoying to hear people refer to the "Twitter generation" as a putdown of speed. Is it really so wrong to enjoy getting the news right when it happens? And so hard for the Times to produce "quality writing" on deadline? The Times's problems have nothing to do with Twitter, it has to do with the paper's declining standards of excellence.

Roberto said...

Either a death (i.e. news item) is worth covering well and in a timely fashion, or it's not. If it's impossible to cover well on a next-day or within-several-days basis, the Times should give up the pretense and not bother.

The Economist offers well-written 1-2 obituaries a week, and if you didn't make the cut, well, as NYTpicker says, you're not going to complain anyway.

Re: 'I'm choosing good writing over timeliness.' said...

Deadline writing never seemed to be a problem until the puff generation.

Anonymous said...

It's unfortunately such a dull section, that NYT obit where all deaths seem coincidental or incidental and merely timed in accordance with the laws of nature and some editor's pace, rather than more sinister angels of death. The Twitr Gen would enjoy links to a more forceful recognition of the quality of evil no matter the length.

Unknown said...

If you want instant celebrity death news, go on twitter. Why should the NYT obituary section compete with cable news for speed? Let each medium do what it does best. These days, if someone's reading the news at all, chances are they're sampling from at least a half dozen different outlets every day.

The NYT occupies a different niche, and that's good.

I read the NYT obit pages for the stories of notable people's lives, not the news of their deaths.

If someone was important enough to deserve a NYT obit in the first place, a summation of their life should still be fresh two weeks after they're dead.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure the NYT obit writers can turn out something pretty nice on a tight deadline, but people aren't always so easy to get on the phone especially after a loved one died. If it takes a week to get a slightly better obit, I'm willing to wait.

Anonymous said...

I wonder whether Sunday's obit of Alexander Haig was too clever for its own good? In Paragraph 2, Tim Weiner included the quote, "...Lyn Nofziger once said that "the third paragraph of his obit would detail his conduct in the hours after President Reagan was shot..."

Then, wouldn't you know it, Paragraph 3 of the piece details his conduct in the hours after President Reagan was shot.

I don't know if a person's obit is the place for being oh so clever.

What do others think?

Jordan said...

For more than a year, I have been studying New York Times obituaries old and new as a hobby.

I can say that a delay is not uncommon. Sometimes a delay can be almost a month.

As some people have noted in the comments on this post, New York Times obituaries, it seems to me, do not aim to break news. Rather, they tend to encapsulate lives, perhaps at the expense of the element of surprise. We might hear about the death of a person, especially someone obscure, before seeing his or her New York Times obituary. I do not find that to be off-putting. I like to see what will turn up in someone's New York Times obituary.

Your list is "the rest of this week's we-just-got-around-to-it obits." You do not present a set of data from which your readers can draw their own conclusions. What about, say, obituaries published in the Times on a quick turnaround? Below is a list of obituaries that shows Times obituary writers are not always delayed in the extreme. (Note: Your list includes obituaries published over a span of four days, and mine does the same.)

Ernst Beyeler, Top Dealer of Modern Art, Dies at 88
Died: Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010
Times Obituary: Saturday, Feb. 27, 2010

David Soyer, Cellist, Is Dead at 87
Died: Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010
Times Obituary: Saturday, Feb. 27, 2010

C. R. Johnson, X Games Medalist in Free Skiing, Dies at 26
Died: Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010
Times Obituary: Friday, Feb. 26, 2010

John Babcock, Last Canadian World War I Veteran, Dies at 109
Died: Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010
Times Obituary: Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010

Ilona Copen, a Founder of Dance Competition, Dies at 70
Died: Saturday, Feb. 20, 2010
Times Obituary: Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010