Friday, May 01, 2009

Andrew Meacham's SPOW Convention report

Andrew Meacham, who writes Epilogue feature obits for the St. Petersburg Times, took notes as fast and as furiously as a court reporter - but by hand - at the Society of Professional Obituary Writers (SPOW) Convention in Charlotte, N.C., April 23-25, 2009.

Here's a portion of the convention report he wrote for Sidebar, his paper's in-house newsletter:

My goal at this meeting of a new group for obituary writers was to absorb everything I could.

We discussed how to get ordinary people to supply those critical moments in a subject’s life that lead to a memorable obit.

We debated the relative merits of anonymous vs. bylined obits.

And we pondered which is better, the New York Times style of unrolling the deceased’s name and a descriptive clause in the lede and then “killing” the person off vs. delaying the death announcement to mid-story or the end.

A number of suggestions sounded familiar:
(1) Ask sources about the obstacles or challenges the deceased may have overcome.
(2) Look for the unusual, and ask explicitly for it.
(3) Don’t forget to ask about the deceased’s annoying, even obnoxious, traits.

Cheryl Carpenter, managing editor of the Charlotte Observer, gave a pep talk about the tendency of people in all fields to grow exponentially while young, then flatten out for decades of professional competency.

“For real mastery,” she said, “the growth curve never has to stop.”

In a sign of the times, the conference attracted only about 15 people. But SPOW's obit contest drew scores of entries in the print, online and broadcast categories.

Two observations from that:
(1) The feature obit is popular with readers, whether the subjects are famous or not, and
(2) Obits translate well into video.

You don’t have to be Dateline or 60 Minutes to excel.

Dick Russ, managing editor of WKYC-Ch. 3 in Cleveland, won in the broadcast obit category with a piece on Indians pitcher-turned-announcer Herb Score, whose brilliant start ended when he took a line drive to the face.

Russ overlaid the narration with still photos, old baseball footage and a song about Score, who eventually returned to the mound but was never the same. His follow-through had changed, analysts said, and he seemed to turn slightly away from the plate at the end of each pitch, as if he were about to duck.

The obit ended with the question Cleveland fans have long asked about Score: What might have been?

No comments: