How far in advance do newspapers write obituaries?

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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.

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.

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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.