Thursday, January 18, 2007

'I Just Died': The future of obits has arrived

The death of columnist and humorist Art Buchwald at the age of 81 was big news on Thursday — in newspapers, on television and on the Internet. But perhaps the bigger news is how one media outlet presented it. While obituaries have long been a staple feature in newspapers, the New York Times reinvented the obit today through the smart use of its Web site. "Hi, I'm Art Buchwald and I just died," announced the humor columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner in an innovative obit video produced from Tim Weiner's interview with Buchwald in July 2006 but not posted until after his death Wednesday night.

The Times, as Weiner points out in his introduction of the video obit, has "a long tradition of interviewing some of the world's most interesting people about their lives for their own obituaries." While that is true, it's an entirely different experience to hear someone say "I just died" as you watch that person on screen. According to the Times, the Buchwald video obit was the first in a series called "The Last Word." As the piece's producer David Rummel told Editor & Publisher: "It is an oral history project. ...It is a chance to give them the last word." Weiner added that 10 other people, including a former president, have been interviewed for the project, and he hopes to conduct three to four new interviews each month. Some, including another former president, have declined his requests, he told E&P, adding that the identities of both those who have agreed to participate and those who have refused would remain secret.

In the Buchwald obituary package posted on its site Thursday, the Times has provided yet another example of the remarkable value of online journalism (which, by the way, is completely different than "citizen journalism"), without abandoning the traditions of the print medium. Those yet to view the unusual but compelling obit might wonder how it is different than what one might see on, say, CNN. Weiner aptly articulated the clear distinction to E&P: "It is the guy talking about his life in a way that television would never take the time to do, but that holds to our standards." By utilizing both the print-edition obituary and the technologically advanced version on its site, the Times has shown that the Web can function the way it once seemed it would for the periodical press — not as a fierce competitor but as a invaluable, supplemental storytelling tool.

Perhaps this rethinking of the obituary will stick and forever alter the way obits are produced and received — not just by the Times for its readers, but for all media and its consumers. Perhaps it is a major step forward for the printed press in realizing the weaponry available to it on the Web. Either way, one columnist's death and the way in which one news outlet covered it is likely to be a landmark event in the history — and future — of journalism.

Your Thoughts
What do you think of the Times video obit of Buchwald and the idea of "The Last Word" series? Will it have lasting impact on obituaries or online journalism in general? Or is it merely good work by the Times with no real influence on how other media will craft obits in the future? Is it simply a trend that will cease when "The Last Word" series does? Post your comments.

1 comment:

Cowboy Bob said...

I don't think it's appropriate to mock the dead. Unless you were praising him. I didn't really read the column closely. I just came in here to use the bathroom. Which I can't find. Never mind. You have a great column and I plan to begin reading it soon. A fan.