Media Magazine

Obituaries: Alive, Well, and Promising

Posted on the 03 August 2012 by Themarioblog @garciainteract

This is the weekend edition of TheMarioBlog. The next blog post will be Monday, August 6, reporting from Hong Kong.

TAKEAWAY: Behold the good obituary: much longer than a Tweet, more like a string of Facebook entries and, when well written, the last surviving of the great journalistic genres.

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Some of the liveliest writing these days is taking place right in the obituary section of selected newspapers.

Not that this is anything new, but perhaps it is the fact that Twitter does not do obituaries well. Nobody lives that insignificantly brief.

Obituaries are about long and interesting lives, which translate into the long and readable narratives.  There is no way to condense the life of Gore Vidal, Sally Ride, Andy Griffith or Ernest Borgnine in 140 characters.  No way. It can’t be and it shouldn’t be. Although I can think of people who would probably prefer their obit to be a mere Tweet, with some characters to spare.

Which brings me to the point of this blog.  I have been an obituary reader from the time I was in high school, although I am aware, and the statistics support it, that the older we get the more likely we are to develop a keen interest in obituaries.  As the actor-comedian title=“Bill Cosby”>Bill Cosby

Like everyone else who makes the mistake of getting older, I begin each day with offee and obituaries.

It may well be related to aging, perhaps we in the 60+ set see it as the next coming event.  In the case of local newspapers, you begin to see your friends and classmates parade through there. You know you will join the parade, inevitable as it is.

Perhaps you wonder what they will say about you, or if you will merit an obit at all.

Not that it matters, because you would be the last to know if you have been snubbed or plain ignored by the newspaper.

Forget what they say in the body of your obituary, it is what comes after that first comma after your name that defines you.  It is the Tweet of the obit, if you will, what makes you memorable. Like this recent New York Times obit:

Ginny Tyler, a head Mousekeeteer in the syndicated version of The Mickey Mouse Club of the 1960s and a oice ator who shifted from Snow White to Cinderella to Bmabi on recordings as a Disneyland storyteller, died on July 13…..

But back to the obituary as a journalistic genre.

For years, I have wondered why local and regional newspapers don’t put more emphasis on obituaries.  True, the advertising department DOES have a tremendous interest in obits, the type that people pay for, the larger the space the more you pay.

In some Latin American newspapers of consequence which I have worked with, you truly don’t die well, unless you end up on the front page of the newspaper.  When I first redesigned Colombia’s El Tiempo, over 20 years ago, I looked at the front page and it included a good dozen obits in boxes down the bottom of the “primera pagina”. Oh, my God, I said! How can this be?

Here, if your obit is on the front page of El Tiempo, you are somebody….,you really did not die in style if your obit was not here,“ a designer told me.

Right now, El Tiempo no longer carries those paid obits on the front page.

Back to the American newspapers

It’s worth mentioning that the obit as a narrative story form is purely American.
Few newspapers outside of the US have a tradition of daily obituaries written by a journalist.

I am happy to say that there are still some local and regional newspapers which cultivate the art of the narrative obituary, the one that tells you in detail about the life and times of ordinary citizens who may or may not be well known in their communities:  the lady who taught kindergarten in the same room for 45 years, or the fireman who started at 18 and died on the job at 56.  Readers cannot get enough of this type of stories.

Yet, for the most, many newspapers have written the obituary on the obituary, a mistake in my view, since obits are part of the content that would give the average local and regional newspaper a shot in the arm.

Case in point: perhaps the best written obituaries are those of The New York Times, and, on an average day, when I turn to my iPad edition of the NYT, and I get to the Obituaries section,  it is there that I find material that I have not yet seen any place else.  The Times’ obits are usually lengthy, but quite complete, the anti-Twitter, and more like a lifetime of Facebook entries, neatly organized, with great rhythm and flow.

One really gets the ultimate send off in a Times obituary, but it surely takes something very special to put after that first comma following your name, I guess, or you did not die, as far as the Times is concerned.

The stories may be about those who have died, but the writing is as vivid as can be, and good enough to get us through a long narrative about the life of someone we never heard of, like Rita Miljo, the Mother Theresa of Baboons, or William Staub, an engineer who built an affordable treadmill.  While the names may not be known, the obits open doors to fields we know nothing about, such as the obit for Robert S. Ledley, who revolutionized radiology.

Of course, the Times has perfected the obituary as an art form, especially when it comes to well known personalities. In the last few weeks, Nora Ephron, Chad Everett, Ernest Borgnine, Gore Vidal, Sally Ride or Maeve Binchy.

The Times’ obits sometimes introduce us, in death, to someone who should have known more about in life: Oswaldo Payá, the Cuban leader of the opposition and the force behind a petition for human rights in the island, killed in an automobile accident.

At a time when newspapers everywhere struggle for survival, realigning and introducing new content, I think that cultivating the obituaries section could provide the type of content that is always of interest, never goes out of style, and is, indeed, the last Facebook entry—-except someone else gets to write it, and you will never know how many Like or Dislike.  Publishers and editors spend hours discussing how to create content to attract the elusive young. Well, devote space and good writers to the obituaries, and you will attract all those baby boomers who wonder how their own obits may read!

Obituaries and pleasurable reading are nothing new, of course, and have been there long before Facebook became part of our daily lives.

In the words of Clarence Darrow:

I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure. “

I agree.

Weekend reads

You can thank Ralph Lauren for the free access to the New York Times iPad app

First paragraph:

Good news for Olympics fans and New York Times readers: Much of the Times’ iPad app will be free to access for almost two weeks. For the second year in a row, Ralph Lauren is doing an ad takeover of the app. Just like last time, the free access it provides will be to some of the sections you might imagine the makers of Polo to be interested in: Sports, Fashion, Travel, Home & Garden, and T Magazine.

Apple REIMAGINES the iPad

First paragraph:

Apple is working on a Smart Cover for its iPad with a flexible secondary display, according to a patent application first filed in August of last year with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Facebook launches curated site to “celebrate great stories

First paragraph

Today Facebook has launched a brand new site that aims to collect interesting stories based on a different theme each month. Called Facebook Stories, the first month is centered on the theme of “remembering” — it includes everything from a video feature about a man who has lost his memory (embedded below) to a selection of New Yorkerpieces that relate to the topic.

Huffington makes her tablet magazine free after five issues


Arianna Huffington and her lieutenants may have overestimated readers’ willingness to pay for content: The magazine, (it was)  announced during a companywide meeting Wednesday afternoon, has switched to an unpaid model. It’s now listed as a free download in the iTunes store.

The iPad Design Lab: Storytelling in the Age of the Tablet

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Video walkthrough of the iPad prototype of iPad Design Lab

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Mario Garcia’s upcoming speaking engagements:

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WAN-IFRA World Editors Forum, Kiev, Ukraine, Sept. 2-5

Cumbre Mundial de Diseño en Prensa 2012: Mexico City; September 24-26

SND (Society of News Design) Cleveland; Oct. 11-13

TheMarioBlog post #1068

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