Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Headlines for dead lines online

"A dash of humor with the ricotta."

That's the headline for the feature obit that I wrote for Jim Indriolo that appeared in the print version of The Plain Dealer on Monday, July 23, 2007.

It's a terrific headline for "A Life Story" about a genial, witty man, who made his living by selling Italian cheese to small grocery stores in Cleveland's Italian neighborhoods.

But that headline does not appear on the online version of the same story. "A dash of humor with the ricotta" becomes "A life story: Jim Indriolo, good-natured deliveryman."

Boring, boring, boring.

The generic label wasn't an oversight or misstep, as I had thought. It was intentional.

My editor tells me that headlines for all stories in our online edition are being rewritten, when necessary, to accommodate Google searches.

In this case, folks looking for "Jim Indriolo" would get a Google hit more quickly, because his name is in the head, not just in the story.

The same reasoning applies to searches for my weekly "A Life Story" feature.

I'm not sure why anyone would do a search for "good-natured" or "deliveryman" or "good-natured deliveryman," but you never know.

Both the print and online editions of Indriolo's story show this subhead: "He delivered cheese in Italian neighborhoods for 3 decades." That's searchable in any case.

I do understand the need to be search-friendly. And I can't assume ownership for this or any other cleverly written, purposely worded headline. But I mourn the loss of such well-thought-out prose for the sake of boosting the number of hits a story receives.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Thieves chose targets based on announced funeral times

3 accused of targeting victims through obits
Associated Press Writer
328 words
17 July 2007
(c) 2007. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

RENO, Nev. (AP) - A multistate investigation led to the arrest of three men suspected of using information in published obituaries to burglarize homes while grieving families attend services, Washoe County sheriff's officials said Tuesday.

Sheriff Mike Haley called the burglaries a "horrific type of crime" targeting the elderly when they are most vulnerable.

Besides stealing tens of thousands of dollars in collectibles, jewelry, guns, heirlooms and silver dinnerware, the suspects inflicted added emotional turmoil by ransacking the homes, detectives said.

In some cases, credits cards belonging to the deceased were stolen and used days later.

Investigators believe Richard Charles Hery, 19, was a key player in at least seven such break-ins that occurred in southwest Reno from early April through May. They said six other similar burglaries are under investigation, and there could be more.

Hery was arrested June 6 in Tucson.

Two others are charged in connection with the case, and detectives are trying to determine if they took part in carrying out the crimes.

Michael Drey was arrested May 17 for assault and rebooked on drug and stolen property charges while jailed. Justin Wayne Ford, 51, was arrested Monday on an unrelated warrant and possession of stolen property.

Authorities said all three have ties to the Reno area.

Investigators also have talked to a woman and her teenage daughter in Tucson about the case.

In each instance, Haley said bandits would read obituaries published in the newspaper, looking for clues about a person's interests to select their targets.

For example, noting someone was an avid hunter signals there are probably guns in the home, Haley said.

Detectives wouldn't reveal what information led them to focus on Hery. But they tracked him to Salt Lake City before he traveled to Arizona. He was arrested there after police were tipped that he was planning similar crimes in Tucson, Haley said.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Dead "Dead Head"

In my weekly Plain Dealer obituary feature, "A Life Story," I try to introduce readers in the Cleveland area to Northeast Ohioans they probably never got to know.

I strive to maintain diversity by choosing subjects of various ages, races, ethnicities, faiths, sexual orientations, counties in our circulation area, fields of work and lifestyles.

Keeping it fresh can be a challenge. So when I saw a death notice for Tim "Mowgli" Princic, a dreadlock-coiffed 30-year-old with an abiding appreciation of the Grateful Dead, I felt I needed to do his story. After all, how many opportunities do you get to write about recently deceased Dead Heads?

I have to admit, I was somewhat misled from the get-go. I told one of his relatives that, if I did the story, I would have to explain why he was dead. He was only 30.

I initially feared he might have died of a drug overdose or took his own life. If I had been told the full story of how he died, I probably would have passed on doing it, realizing it could create problems.

I don't recall how it was explained, but I came away believing that Mowgli was in an unfortunate car crash while on his way home from visiting his parents.

It turned out that it was an unfortunate car crash, but it happened while he was leaving a tavern, where he had been partying with friends. Folks I spoke with believed he had intended to crash at a nearby friend's place for the night. Instead, he crashed into a utility pole and died.

I didn't want my special feature to turn into a police report. Of course, I did speak with the spokesman for the police department a couple of days before Mowgli's story was published. At that time, toxicology reports had not come back. So I couldn't state with certainty that Mowgli had been driving drunk, even though that's what police and most everyone else believed.

I tried to present the death sentence in the same tone as the rest of the story of Mowgli's brief free-spirited life.

I started the story as follows: Tim Princic paid for trips and tickets to Grateful Dead shows with bread, butter and American cheese.

The Akron resident, known to many as "Mowgli," made grilled cheese sandwiches on a small propane stove that he kept in his Volkswagen bus or whatever vehicle he was driving.

Princic, who died May 20 at age 30, sold the dollar-a-pop manna to fellow Deadheads (Grateful Dead fans) in an area of the parking lot designated as "Shakedown Street" after the Grateful Dead song and album of the same name.

I wanted to keep the reader engaged in the story. So I didn't say how Mowgli died until later.

I wondered how someone his age could have followed the Dead from venue to venue with a multitude of nomadic disciples, when he was only around 18, when Jerry Garcia, the leader of the band, died.

"At 17, his wandering feet got the better of him," said his mother, Terry. "He and some friends took off for California. His first trip across country and, I believe, where he found his love for the Deadhead community."

Mowgli went on to follow the remnants of the Grateful Dead - its members' spin-off acts - and Dead tribute bands.

The experience of traveling on a wing and a prayer in a Volkswagen bus, which kept breaking down, led to Mowgli's becoming a VW mechanic.

The owner of the garage where Mowgli worked said: "He wanted to learn the old Volkswagens, which I know all about -- the old '60s and '70s era -- which I thought was kind of cool. He was like a free bird."

That's where I seized my chance to talk about the accident.

He also learned to fix the VW's much faster brother, the Audi.

Princic was driving a black 1999 Audi on May 20 when it crashed into a utility pole in Painesville.

He was thrown from the car and died.

Before the accident, he had been visiting family in Lake County and celebrating a friend's birthday at a Painesville watering hole.

I resumed the life story by talking about a quarry park, frequented by would-be flower children, where everybody knows your nickname.

I gave one of the explanations I had heard about how Mowgli got his moniker.

Princic was called "Mowgli," because he reminded friends of the jungle boy from the Rudyard Kipling stories.

"A skinny little boy, never had a shirt on, and he was like a monkey. He was always climbing on stuff," said Princic's former girlfriend, Heather Schaffer.

I showed Mowgli's caring nature and love for Schaffer.

Princic often lifted Schaffer, a paraplegic, out of her wheelchair and carried her to otherwise inaccessible places, so she could share what he experienced.

He once carried her at least 90 steps to the scenic-view area of a lookout tower in the Smoky Mountains.

I ended the story with an expression of Mowgli's attitude on life.

"He would dance naked in the kitchen, just because it's Tuesday," Schaffer said.

"I don't think I've ever met someone who loved life so much, just because it was."

I received a lot of positive feedback on Mowgli's story and not just from folks who knew him. People enjoyed reading an obit about this fascinating live-life-to-the-fullest character.

I expected that I and my superiors would hear from critics, who thought I was an irresponsible journalist who paid tribute to a drunk driver who could easily have taken the lives of others with his reckless behavior. And we did get complaints. But only a few.

Of course, I wasn't paying tribute to Mowgli. I simply provided a snapshot of his life. I don't editorialize. I have faith in my readers' ability to draw their own conclusions.


Sunday, July 08, 2007

Making mistakes and writing obits for Alfred alumni

Several weeks ago, I spoke to a genealogical group and stressed the importance of accuracy in obits.

One elderly fellow asked, "What do you do when you make a mistake? Like the one you made in today's paper?"

It was just a typo, but it was embarrassing. I gave the man's year of birth as 1927, when it was really 1917. The man in the audience noted the date of birth and the year I had written for the dead guy's graduation from college and said, "He must have been a genius to graduate at such a young age."

I had to write a correction which in Plain Dealer style pointed out that it was the reporter's error. Yes, it was my fault initially, but several editors read the obits before they get printed. It was the kind of error that could have been caught.

I thought that was bad. But I topped it a few days after returning from the obituary writers confab at Alfred (N.Y.) University to the North Coast (that would be the northern part of Ohio that borders Lake Erie).

In a previous blog item that shared reports on the 9th Great Obituary Writers Conference in Alfred, Steve Miller wrote in the comments that he was in the process of writing an obituary for the New York Sun about someone who had graduated from Alfred University.

Curiously, I too had just written an obit for an Alfred alumnus for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. Weird, huh?

Anyway, Ms. Know-It-All (that would be me) noted that the family friend who compiled obit info said that Alfred was in "upstate New York." And as we learned during our stay in that college town, Alfred is in the "southern tier." But "southern tier" of what, I'm not sure. To me, it was not "upstate."

So I decided to provide directions to Alfred. Again, a typo. I wrote that Alfred was in "southeastern New York state," when I meant to say "southwestern," which still would have been wrong, because it's sort of in the south-central portion of the state.

I wrote to Dave Snyder, our Alfred host, to share my tale and poke fun at myself. To my surprise, Dave told me that I misunderstood the meaning of "upstate New York."

If you look at a map of the state, New York City is in the southeastern tail. Every other part of the state is further north or "upstate," even places like Buffalo, which are essentially on the state's western border.

So the family friend was correct. And my error was compounded, making me feel like an even bigger idiot.