The Best New York Times Obituaries Are Really Terrific Feature Stories

January 31, 2013
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Front-page obituaries more than doubled last year in the New York Times. This is a very interesting article written about why this is happening.

It’s amazing how the New York Times understands the power of a well written life story, yet many funeral homes see obituaries as fill in the blank templates.

Please share your thoughts about this article in the comments below.

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Front-Page Obituaries More Than Doubled in 2012 — Here’s Why

By: MARGARET SULLIVAN, New York Times Public Editor

Are prominent people dying at a faster rate these days, or is it just your imagination?

You might well wonder that if you’re a regular reader of The New York Times’s print edition where front-page obituaries, this past year, became something less than a rarity.

In fact, the number of front-page obits more than doubled in 2012 over the year before – there were 30 … in 2011, there were 14.

The trend began with Joe Paterno, the longtime Penn State football coach, last January, and ended with Jean Harris, the headmistress-turned-convicted killer, last Saturday.

Between those two, deaths that were treated as front-page news includedArthur O. Sulzberger, The Times’s longtime publisher; the composer Marvin Hamlisch; the artist LeRoy Neiman; and the writer Nora Ephron – among others.

Never, in the past 15 years, have there been more than 14 front-page obituaries in a single year — 10 or 12 has been a more typical number.

So this year’s 30 is quite a jump. I asked Dean Baquet, the managing editor for news, about the change. Mr. Baquet, who is usually the ranking editor at the afternoon news meeting where front-page choices are made, said he has long felt that a well-written obituary of a prominent person is a good choice for Page A1.

“The best New York Times obituaries are really terrific feature stories,” he said. “They fly onto the front page.”

As newspapers continue to try to differentiate themselves from the many other media choices available, he added, “we look more closely at things that we do better than anyone else.”

Obituaries do often fit that bill. In addition, Mr. Baquet said, The Times is blessed with a strong Obituaries department, with three editors, a news assistant and seven writers, including the Pulitzer Prize winner Robert D. McFadden, who works strictly on advance obituaries.

William McDonald, the Obituaries editor, said he’s pleased with the appearance of so many obituaries on the front page. “We like to promote our wares,” he told me. And, he said, obituaries are “one of our franchises” at The Times. “We have very good writers and very good subjects.”

Obituaries, he said, are essentially journalistic profiles “that open windows onto the recent past.”

Mr. Baquet also praised the quality of writers like Margalit Fox.

“If you look at Margalit’s oeuvre for the year, what you’ll see is a group of elegant, perfect stories,” Mr. Baquet said. In 2012, Ms. Fox wrote front-page obituaries of the magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown, the author Maurice Sendak and the poet Adrienne Rich.

Her talent and sense of fun were on full display in the Brown obituary, which began:

Helen Gurley Brown, who as the author of ”Sex and the Single Girl” shocked early-1960s America with the news that unmarried women not only had sex but thoroughly enjoyed it — and who as the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine spent the next three decades telling those women precisely how to enjoy it even more — died on Monday in Manhattan. She was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger.

Mr. Baquet said that he looks for several qualities in an obituary as he considers it for the front page.

“Of course, it has to be about a compelling and significant figure,” he said. Beyond that, “sometimes, the writing elevates it to the point where it becomes a mini history lesson.”

And expertise figures into the mix: When a music critic, for example, brings his knowledge and expertise to writing an obituary of a performer or composer, that can be a factor in choosing it for the front page.

The music critic Jon Pareles’s description of the disco singer Donna Summerin May helped catapult her obituary onto the front page:

With her doe eyes, cascade of hair and sinuous dance moves, Ms. Summer became the queen of disco — the music’s glamorous public face — as well as an idol with a substantial gay following. Her voice, airy and ethereal or brightly assertive, sailed over dance floors and leapt from radios from the mid-’70s well into the ’80s.

Mr. Baquet noted one other appeal of the well-constructed obituary: “They’re just great stories — and unlike the fiscal cliff, they have a beginning, a middle and an end.” (For a look at some of the best obituaries of late 2011 through September 2012, check out “The Socialite Who Killed A Nazi with Her Bare Hands,” the second annual compilation of Times obituaries published by Workman Publishing.)


As we ponder what prominent figures might shuffle off this mortal coil in 2013, here’s a rundown of the number of front-page obituaries in The Times over the past 15 years.

2012 – 30
2011 – 14
2010 – 11
2009 – 13
2008 – 11
2007 – 14
2006 – 11*
2005 – 13
2004 – 10
2003 – 13
2002 – 13
2001 – 9
2000 – 9
1999 – 10
1998 – 13

* Two front-page obituaries appeared on Dec. 26, 2006, for the broadcasterFrank Stanton and the soul musician James Brown.

Ryan Thogmartin

CEO at DISRUPT Media and ConnectingDirector.com
Ryan Thogmartin is the Owner and CEO of DISRUPT Media.

DISRUPT Media is a full-service creative agency built for the now. We partner with death care companies to drive deep-rooted brand loyalty and measurable leads through social media.

More Fans. More Conversations. More Leads.

Ryan is also the founder of ConnectingDirectors.com. ConnectingDirectors.com is the leading online daily publication for funeral professionals with a reader base of over 45,000 of the most elite and forward-thinking professionals in the profession. With ConnectingDirectors.com Ryan has created a global community through an online platform allowing funeral professionals to Stay Current. Stay Informed and Stay Elite.
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