How do you put a life into 500 words? Ask the staff obituary writers at the New York Times. OBIT is a first-ever glimpse into the daily rituals, joys and existential angst of the Times obit...
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Francesca De Luca
How do you put a life into 500 words? Ask the staff obituary writers at the New York Times. OBIT is a first-ever glimpse into the daily rituals, joys and existential angst of the Times obit writers, as they chronicle life after death on the front lines of history.
Who would have thought death could be so much fun?
"Maybe a sentence or two will be about the death." Obituarist
Dying is no fun, but the obit writers at the New York Times make the most of it. They treat the assignment as a celebration of life, a real life, a history of people who made differences in the lives of others. Additionally, more than the responsibility of finding out the facts of a life is getting the facts correct.
Obit is a surprisingly upbeat documentary about a decidedly downbeat subject. The reporters are animated about the celebration and the discoveries they uncover in their journalistic pursuit. Most of them were accomplished journalists who are chosen because that part of the paper has grown from a pasture for declining reporters to a field of artistic possibilities energized by the lives the reporters chronicle.
Much of the time they are going on gut feeling. When they reported on John Fairfax, the first to cross an ocean in a rowboat, they hit a goldmine because his life outside the rowboat was even more interesting.
In one of the most prominent obits, the somewhat discursive doc features the death of William Wilson, one of the first TV consultants, who advised JFK the night in 1960 when he defeated Richard Nixon by virtue of Kennedy's telegenic superiority, helped in no small part by Wilson's choice of such details as the makeup he hurried to buy at a pharmacy.
An interesting part of such obits as Wilson's is the choice for lead paragraph or the headline or where in the paper it should go--front page or obit section--and how long in words. These decisions are not fed into an algorithm but rather are the province of writers and editors who know history and culture well enough to make the decision.
The NYT is my favorite newspaper, so good that I read the obits along with the editorials. Such a gift to me ensures that my own obit will exude the joie de vivre we both share.
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