The reading of newspapers is declining as the population ages and dies. The old joke goes, if I read the obituaries in the morning and I’m not among those listed, I must be alive and can go about my day. There are two primary types of obituary stories that you see in the newspaper: news articles written about someone famous or remarkable in some way, and paid obituaries that a family places in the section of the newspaper devoted to those listings… kind of like the classified ads of death. Today we’ll look at news obituaries.
News obituaries, or “obits” for short, are mini-biographies that focus on the person’s life and times and the contributions they made. If done well, you’ll learn something not commonly known. Obits originated as death notices that evolved with writers interviewing family and friends. These stories may not necessarily please the family, since a news story may reveal the deceased “warts and all.”
News obituary writing is an art form and, depending on the size of the newspaper, can be a category within a newspaper’s staff. A dead celebrity’s story can appear anywhere in the paper, not just on the obituary page. Michael Jackson’s death at the age of 50 was on the front page in many papers, and the media circus around his demise and the funeral kept the story alive for months.
When author and Oscar-winning screenplay writer Budd Schulberg died at the age of 95, the New York Times did an article about him in the Sports section. Schulberg, who wrote “On the Waterfront,” which had that famous scene with Marlon Brando declaring, “I coulda been a contender,” had a passion for boxing throughout his career.
You don’t have to be famous to get news articles written about a loved one. My brother’s partner, Wes Vincent, founded the Blue Eagle Book Shoppe, a noted Albuquerque metaphysical emporium with books and items to help spiritual seekers of all kinds. When Wes died, I contacted the two local daily papers and let them know a bit about Wes and the shop, sent in a nice photo, and provided contacts of people to interview. The stories ran prior to the memorial service with details for those who wanted to attend.
In general, the best people to contact for a news obit are either the paper’s regular obituary writer or a metro/local news page editor. At bigger newspapers, there may be an editor just for obits. Depending on what your loved one was noted for, and the size of your local newspaper, you might contact the arts editor/writer for an artist, the sports editor for an athlete, the business editor for a local businessperson, and so forth.
Another option for a news obituary is trade publications. My uncle, Arthur Cohen, was a big tennis fan, both playing the game and collecting memorabilia. A founding member of the Tennis Collectors of America, he collapsed and died on the tennis court after playing a great game of singles and just starting a round of doubles.
In addition to writing a paid obituary to run in The Washington Post, the family’s local paper, I contacted the editor of Tennis Week magazine with the obit information. The editor asked for more details, and I sent my eulogy for the funeral along with other information about his “tennis museum” in his home. From those emails, the editor prepared an article that ran in the online version of the publication.