Here’s a new story I wrote for Poynter Online:
Four months before Lovelle Svart died under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act last September, Rob Finch, multimedia reporter at The (Portland) Oregonian, began conducting a series of interviews with her. Through 27 videos that came together in a piece called “Living to the End,” Finch captured Svart’s laugh, her sighs, her last words.
Finch’s use of multimedia mirrors what obit writers and those covering the dead and dying are doing to keep the memory of the deceased alive.
“It’s one thing to read a quote in a newspaper, and it’s another thing to hear somebody say it,” said Finch, whose videos were accompanied by articles that Oregonian reporter Don Colburn wrote throughout the three months. “There’s information that cannot be explained just by reading it. There’s the tone of people’s voice, there’s the shudder, there’s the fear, there’s the happiness, and the little tiny nuances you can see in their face. In terms of death, it’s seeing that person alive again.”
Gayle Sims, chief obituary writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer, has trained herself to think like a multimedia storyteller. When a prominent Philadelphia police officer died last August, Sims wrote about it and sought help in creating an accompanying slideshow. At the officer’s funeral, Sims recorded audio of bagpipers playing, while Inquirer photographer Ed Hille took photos.
Similarly, when civil rights activist Marie Hicks died, Sims wrote an obituary about Hicks and pushed for an additional multimedia component. With Sims’ encouragement, several photographers and a team of online video interns created a video of Hicks’ sons talking about their mother.
When resources and time are lacking, Sims points to other interactive resources. In an obituary about a World War II veteran who died in November, for example, Sims linked to a video clip of the veteran on WHYY’s “Voices of War” documentary series. She has also linked to tribute videos that family members of the deceased agreed to share online.
For the past several months, Sims has helped gather information for a multimedia project showcasing military fatalities in Iraq.
“Our hope is to write and produce extensive multimedia obituaries, or life stories, of each soldier, along with constantly updated interviews from friends or family members,” Sims said. “Our dream is that these will remain posted online forever with comments from readers, relatives and others for generations to come.”
With obituaries emerging as a strong dimension of online content, many newspapers are linking to online guest books at Legacy.com, a Web site that hosts the obit Web sites of more than 500 newspapers.
The guest books provide an opportunity for user-generated content by giving readers a chance to interact with others on the Web about death. This guest book, which was linked to an obituary that ran in the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, has 17 pages of comments from readers. There is also an option for readers to leave an audio entry, view photo albums of the deceased and combine music and photographs in a “moving tribute.”
Alana Baranick, obituary writer at The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, which uses Legacy.com, said she’d like to create multimedia obituaries, but training is hard to come by. “We’re evolving on this,” she said. “I think you’re still going to need reporter types to write an obit that sums up someone’s life, but it’s great to have links to photo slideshows, to people’s music or speeches, or oral history.”
Baranick, who wrote the book “Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers,” is also the author of News University’s new module on writing obits. Baranick runs a blog about obituaries called the “Obituary Forum” and just this month started the Society of Professional Obituary Writers. (The site is still under construction.) Written obits, she said, seem to live longer.
“There’s some stuff that’s online today and it’s gone tomorrow,” Baranick said. “When people put the obituaries in a booklet form, you can keep them and pass them along. If you put something on an eight-track tape a long time ago, people don’t normally have the equipment to listen or view those anymore. It makes it harder to find things sometimes.”
Mike Binkley, former anchor at KSTP-TV in Minneapolis, has left the newsroom and now records oral history. For his independent business, called What’s Your Story?, Binkley makes tribute videos, which are 15 to 30 minutes long and cost $3,000 to $5,000. So far, he said, four people have purchased videos.
“More and more funerals these days have photo montages, but they just feature the one-dimensional, flat images of this person that anyone could get through looking at a photo album. [People’s] mannerisms, their philosophies — I want to get them before the funeral,” Binkley said. “It’s a matter of feeling a person’s presence and being able to hear their voice and see their smile and feel them with you. People who write the written obituaries have the same limitations of fitting a life into a column, but so much can be said by the look on someone’s face in a 30-second clip.”
Ellie Brecher, TheMiami Herald‘s multimedia obituary writer, said she plans to start putting together videos, or “pre-bits,” of people before they die. Brecher wrote a piece that appeared in the Herald last August encouraging readers to consider a pre-bit. The idea for pre-bits, she describes in the article, came to her after watching The New York Times‘ multimedia obituary of Art Buchwald.
Pre-bits and multimedia obits, Brecher said, are a service to both the living and the dead. “One of the most comforting things you can offer people who are grieving is the knowledge that the world has a chance to get to know the person whom you love and miss so much,” she said. “We all think that our loved ones are special, and when somebody outside of your immediate circle comes along and reaffirms that in a difficult time, it can really make people feel better.”
Most of the time, Brecher said, people are thrilled to share videos and photos of their loved ones for multimedia obituaries.
But there’s also the creepiness factor, the sense that multimedia obits add to the discomfort associated with death. The online comments in response to the Oregonian’s piece were mostly positive, but Colburn and Finch heard from those who weren’t so pleased. One reader, Colburn said, told him that “Living to the End” was the “most disgusting piece of journalism” she had ever read.
Whether viewed as celebrations of life or documentaries of doom, obituaries have become the source of lively discussions on the Web. Patricia Sullivan, Adam Bernstein and Matt Schudel, all obit writers at The Washington Post, keep the discussion going on their “Post Mortem” obit blog, addressing topics like “obiticide” and how to write about the death of a friend.
The face of obits is also changing internationally. In England, Andrew McKie, obituary editor at The Daily Telegraph, blogs about obituaries. Some recent headlines include “Europe’s skeptical approach to obituaries” and “Death and the digital revolution.” In Germany, a television producer is preparing to launch a satellite television channel early this year, showcasing obituary videocasts, advice for those approaching death and features about famous graveyards.
Because obituaries have a broad geographic following, people living across the U.S., and the world, can track obits online in ways that they can’t on paper, says Vernon Loeb, deputy managing editor for news at The Philadelphia Inquirer.
“Every obituary writer has to ask themselves the same question: What can I do to make obits a powerful draw?” said Loeb. “The Web gives all sorts of ways to link back to a person’s life.”
How does your newsroom cover obituaries? What other opportunities do you think obit writers have to incorporate multimedia into their work? Share your thoughts here.