The digital-age obituary
When news broke that poet and author Maya Angelou had passed away early last Wednesday morning, The New York Times was prepared.
At 8:54 a.m., just short of an hour after Angelou died, and before her family could confirm her death, the Times Twitter account linked to her obituary packaged with a photo slideshow and a close to three-minute video bidding farewell to the I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings author.
In addition to a slideshow and video clip, the Times also dug into their archives and re-upped an original review of one of Angelou's earliest books. Readers using the the Times iPhone app received a push alert that promoted the review.
Everyone knows the Times has obituaries of the most prominent citizens of the world in the can, ready to go at a moment's notice upon their deaths. But the Obituaries desk has been quietly upping its game over the last few years, to account for the big-splash digital treatments of famous figures expected almost immediately upon their deaths on the web.
Though the paper published an updated obituary later in the day to reflect the circumstances of Angelou’s death, the final article was not demonstrably different from the one it had on file since its completion in 2011, obituary editor William McDonald told Capital. It was one of about 1,700 the department maintains, a number that’s remained consistent throughout the years. In his 1967 profile of Times obituary writer Alden Whitman, Gay Talese reported that even in the days of physical archives, the paper kept about 2,000 advance obits on file.
“It's an impossible job—trying to anticipate death—but somebody has to do it, at least at the Times,” McDonald said.
In the digital age, the impossible is trickier.
“Editorially, the demands of the website and its readers—wanting the complete obit ASAP —have made it even more essential that we do as many as we can in advance, so they're fairly ready to go when the death occurs,” he said. “That includes not just the text but photos, slide shows, video features and whatever other digital bells and whistles we may want to add. All of which places some additional strains on our relatively small obituary department, but we've done well in meeting the challenge, I think.”
In order to decide on a big enough name to produce these multimedia packages for, McDonald said, on occasion, the obituary desk meets with the video team informally.
“I'll often suggest a few names of people we should be thinking about,” he said. “Most are the obvious 'headline names.' Only the biggest fish tend to get the full treatment. But there can be exceptions, if there's a particularly compelling story to tell using video as well. But resources are limited, and we have to choose our shots.”
As for those obituaries that were written in advance during the pre-digital days that are deemed to warrant the full multimedia treatment, they receive a digital refresh.
“We're always revisiting what we have—updating, revising and thinking about multimedia assets to add,” McDonald said.
In some cases—like that of the late New York Mayor Ed Koch—one such assest is a “Last Word” interview for which the subject, in a sense, helps write his or her own obit.
“We tell them straight up why we're calling—that we'd like to interview them about their lives, high points and low,” McDonald said. “Some are eager to talk—to participate in their own obit, if you like. Others are horrified by the idea. It's hit or miss.”
If the subject agrees to be interviewed, McDonald said they promise an ironclad embargo until the day he or she dies, even, he said, “if someone says something that might make a ripple of news.”
“Ed Koch had some disparaging things to say about Mario Cuomo in our ‘Last Word’ interview with him, and it got some attention after Koch's death. But the quote was under lock and key until then. As journalists, we hope and pray that a subject will make a kind of ‘deathbed’ revelation. Rarely happens, though.”