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How Obituaries Got a Jolt of New Life in the Internet Era

From Paul Farhi, writing in the Washington Post…

When Rush Limbaugh died this year, the mainstream media he had so long railed against gave him the kind of immaculately choreographed send-off that was once reserved for popes and presidents.

Within minutes of his widow announcing his death, major news organizations hit the “publish” button on sophisticated surveys of his life and career — the Associated Press describing the talk-radio titan as “an architect of the modern right-wing,” the New York Times reminding that he “pushed baseless claims and toxic rumors” well before social media emerged as our most potent vector of disinformation.

These obituaries had been years in the making. Long before Limbaugh announced in early 2020 that he had lung cancer, journalists had begun assembling their stories about his death, not knowing when the news would indeed be news — just that it would be a gigantic story when it happened.

Once a sleepy corner of journalism, obituaries have found new life in the Internet era. A well-crafted obit for a prominent figure — blending history and biography, triggering nostalgia or perhaps even the reader’s own feelings of mortality — can attract enormous readership online. And now there’s a need for speed: The obit that comes out first, or at least fast, can win the day.

That’s why many news organizations have bolstered their stockpiles of pre-written obits, known as “pre-writes” or “advancers,” creating vast portfolios of deaths foretold. The New York Times has 1,850 such obits idling in its computer system, according to William McDonald, the newspaper’s obituaries editor; The Washington Post has about 900 on hand, said its obituaries editor, Adam Bernstein.

“We’ve ratcheted it up in the last few years,” said Mike Barnes, senior editor of the Hollywood Reporter, which now has more than 800 obituaries written for still-living notables spanning the entertainment industry — from actors and directors and studio heads to production designers and makeup artists. Barnes himself has written about 500 of these over the past 10 years. “It’s gotten to be so competitive.”

For the rest, click here.


By | December 5, 2021 | Journalism, Media Culture

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