How far in advance do newspapers write obituaries?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 27 2009 6:35 PM

Early Deadlines

How far in advance do newspapers write obituaries?

Pictures of U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy. Click image to expand.
A wall of photos at the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum in Massachusetts

The family of Sen. Edward Kennedy announced his death around 1:20 a.m. Wednesday morning. Within hours, news organizations had posted full-length obituaries complete with quotes from friends, family, and political experts about his life. How far in advance do newspapers prepare obituaries?

It depends on the person. The vast majority of obituaries are written after someone dies, not before. But news organizations prepare so-called "advancers" in one of three situations: The subject is so famous that the paper would be embarrassed not to have an immediate package in the event of an untimely death; the subject is old or sick; or the subject is "at risk"—i.e., he's a drug addict or a stunt biker. The first category is rarified: world leaders such as Barack Obama or Gordon Brown. The second category includes Sen. Kennedy and other figures over the average life expectancy of 75 or 80. (Even before Kennedy announced that he had brain cancer in May 2008, newspapers were preparing obituary packages.) Likewise, TheNewsHour With Jim Lehrer had an obit ready for Pope John Paul II a full two years before his death. Into the third category fall stars like Michael Jackson and Britney Spears. When Jackson died at 50, the Los Angeles Times already had an obituary ready because he had a spotty health record. In 2008, when Spears' antics were regularly featured in the tabloids, the Associated Press prepared her obituary despite the fact that she was only 26 years old.

Advertisement

The obituary assignment process also depends on the subject. Big papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post have regular beat reporters write obituaries whenever possible. (For example, a Times political reporter wrote Kennedy's obit.) The rest are written by a designated obituary team consisting of an editor and a handful of writers. Sometimes those writers have expertise in a particular area, like sports or Hollywood, in which case they'll cover those subjects. But for the most part, obit writers are generalists.

Obituary writers have various ways of keeping tabs on who just died and who's near death. They peruse other papers and Web sites for death news and sometimes set up Google News Alerts for the phrase dies at, as in "Edward Kennedy dies at 77." Another simple strategy is to pump beat reporters at their own paper for information about which of their sources or frequent subjects might be kicking the bucket soon. Writers also communicate with the subject's friends and family. The Washington Post, for example, checked in periodically with Kennedy's circle about the senator's health.

Occasionally, a news organization will set up a pre-interview with the subject for use in his or her obituary. In fact, in 2007, the New York Times began recording such interviews for use after the subject's death. Other times, the subject will approach the newspaper. For example, notorious lobbyist Edward von Kloberg III, who spent his career representing dictators like Saddam Hussein and the military regime in Burma, phoned the Post about an interview months in advance of his death.

How many obits do papers keep in the can? Depends on the organization's size and resources. The New York Times claims to have 1,200 "advancers" ready, the oldest written back in 1982. The Washington Post has about 150 prepped. Occasionally, this practice leads to embarrassment. Advance obituaries sometimes slip out, like when CNN mistakenly posted mock-ups of its obituary page for Dick Cheney in 2003. In 1998, the Associated Press mistakenly reported Bob Hope's death, which was then announced on the Senate floor. Other times, the subject outlives the author: By the time Gerald Ford died in December 2006, his obituary writer had been dead for 11 months.

The quickening news cycle makes obituary writing tricky. In the past, the worst time for someone to die was after your newspaper's 5 p.m. deadline, since writers would have to rush to get an obit in the next day's paper. But these days, just about any time is inconvenient, since news organizations are expected to have a profile ready hours after someone's death.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Adam Bernstein of the Washington Post; Marilyn Johnson, author of The Dead Beat; and Claire Noland of the Los Angeles Times.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technocracy
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.