Sunday, December 30, 2007

Name that death beat organization

As you may know from reading previous blog items, a new organization is being established for people who make their living writing about the dead.

The question arises: What will be the name of that organization?

Suggestions so far include:
1. Professional Obituary Writers;
2. Professional Obituary Writers Society;
3. Professional Obituary Writers Organization;
4. The Society of Professional Obituarists;
5. Society of Obituary Journalists.

And that's just for starters. Do you have a preference among these or a moniker suggestion of your own?

TV tries to mimic Sheeler's "Final Salute"

The CBS Sunday Morning magazine program featured a segment called "The Fallen" on Dec. 30 as an end-of-the-year remembrance of servicemen and -women who died in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2007.

From the beginning, it was clear that this was a recycling of reporter (and former obituary writer) Jim Sheeler's and photographer Todd Heisler's 2006 Pulitzer-winning "Final Salute", the tear-jerking, heart-tugging feature which was published in the Rocky Mountain News in 2005.

First, they showed Heisler's memorable photo of passengers' faces in the windows of a parked airplane as a flag-draped coffin is being carried out of the plane's belly.

Then the CBS newsman David Martin interviewed Steve Beck, the Marine whose job it was to knock on doors of the unsuspecting soon-to-be-bereaved, the Marine whom Jim and Todd shadowed in order to get the story.

Martin also interviewed Melissa Givens, a widow whom Jim probably first interviewed in 2003 after her husband, Jesse, drowned in a tank in the desert. Check Jim's story from March 19, 2004: "The lifetime gift of Pfc. Givens."

It was nice to see images I recognized and hear about what's happened to Beck - then Maj. Beck, now Lt. Col. Beck - and the widow Givens since Jim wrote about them.

But even with the weeping widow and the Marine saying he'll never forget the fallen or their families, the TV version lacked the emotional impact of Jim's words and all of Todd's photos.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Hugh Massingberd, father of contemporary British obits

Hugh Massingberd, obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph of London from 1986 to 1994, turned the pomp and solemnity of traditional tributes for the recently deceased into humorous, candid and sometimes vicious profiles of the dearly departed.

Massingberd died Dec. 25, 2007, and quickly became the subject for the Telegraph's featured obit.

In his obit, Massingberd was quoted as saying of his craft:
"I determined to dedicate myself to chronicling what people were really like through informal anecdote, description and character sketch." Laughter, he added, would be by no means out of place.

Per the Telegraph story, when Massingberd took over the obits desk:
Immediately, Telegraph readers found themselves regaled by such characters as Canon Edward Young, the first chaplain of a striptease club; the last Wali of Swat, who had a fondness for brown Windsor soup; and Judge Melford Stevenson, who considered that "a lot of my colleagues are just constipated Methodists".

A tip of the hat and undying thanks to the master from fellow obit writers everywhere.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Legal physician-assisted suicide, topic for Portland workshop

Don Colburn, an Oregonian reporter (and poet) who has extensively covered Oregon's Death with Dignity Act (also known as physician-assisted suicide), will be giving a presentation at the professional obituary writers workshop to be held in Portland, Ore., May 8-11.

Colburn will also be showing a multimedia presentation that chronicles the actual physician-assisted suicide, at which he was present, of a terminally ill Oregonian staff member.

Colburn will be available for questions about the law in Oregon, the only U.S. state that has legalized suicide with certain restrictions.

Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute lauded The Oregonian for its coverage of this sensitive and controversial issue on "Al's Morning Meeting" page nearly two years ago.

This workshop will kick off a discussion on coverage of suicides in writing obituaries.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Professional Obituary Writers Workshop: Featuring Author of "A Writer's Coach"

The Oregonian's nationally known writing coach, author and soon-to-be-retired editor at large, Jack R. Hart, is scheduled to do a writing workshop/intensive on May 10 at the professional obituary writers' workshop organized by Amy Starke and Joan Harvey at The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.

Jack edited Amy's Life Stories for 9 months in between permanent editors, and coached Tom Hallman, Richard Read, and others to Pulitzer Prizes.

And that's not all.

In its author biography for Jack, the Niemann Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University says:
Jack Hart, a managing editor at The Oregonian, has coached writing in newsrooms throughout the English-speaking world. He has edited two Pulitzer Prize-winning stories (and contributed editing to a third). He has also edited winners of the American Society of Newspaper Editors Writing Awards, the Ernie Pyle Award, the Scripps Howard business-writing award, The Overseas Press ClubAwards, the Headliners awards and the Society of Professional Journalists feature-writing award. He has taught at five universities, The Poynter Institute and the American Press Institute.

Stu Warner, the writing coach at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, has been teaching staff writers (myself included) from Jack's book, "A Writer's Coach: An Editor's Guide to Words that Work."

Kudos to Amy and Joan for getting the writing experts' expert to speak to obit writers like us at their workshop.

Remember, more details on the workshop will be posted here as they become available.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Jack Frost, no longer nipping at your nose

Among the obituaries in the Roseburg News Review in Roseburg, Ore., on April 24, 2007, was the story of the late Jack Frost.

I thought it was cool (pun intended) that Jack W. Frost, who died at the age of 82, served with the Army in Sitka, Alaska, on the Aleutian Islands near the end of World War II.

But I was surprised to see that Jack's parents gave him that wintry moniker. After all, his dad's name was Jack A. Frost.

I thought, "Didn't his dad know he'd be kidded about his name all his life?"

It's one of those things that we assume has been around forever.

While it's true in this case that the character Jack Frost has its roots in folklore that predated the modern Jack W. Frost's 1924 birthdate, I'm not certain that folks back then would have had the same kind of reaction to his name that I did.

I know Jack Frost because of Mel Torme's "A Christmas Song" with the lyric, "Jack Frost nipping at your nose."

My kids (grown men now, I should point out) would know Jack Frost from those Claymation stories about Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus that are shown on TV during the winter holiday season.

Names - and words, in general - can mean different things to people of different ages, ethnic backgrounds and interests and at different times in our history.

Deep thoughts on a snowy weekend in my neck of the woods.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Professional Obituary Writers Organization

The workshop for professional obituary writers in Portland, Ore., mentioned in a previous blog item, is designed for a specific audience: Folks who make their living by writing obits.

It is not intended to replace the International Association of Obituarists' annual Great Obituary Writers Conference, which is open to anyone who loves stories about the lives of the dearly departed.

Likewise, an organization for professional obituary writers that is being formed is not intended to replace the IAO, but to serve the needs of journalists on the death beat.

An advisory committee for the new group will consider various points of view and make initial decisions on behalf of all the obit pros to get the organization off the ground, obtain not-for-profit status and set up its own Web site. (Details to come as they are available.)

At some point, the membership will elect a board of directors and officers. When and how that will happen is up to the advisory committee to decide.

Comments on the formation of this group are welcome. Stay tuned to this Obituary Forum blog for the developing story.

FYI: The fledgling organization is not in charge of the Portland conference. That is strictly the brainchild of the folks from The Oregonian.

Workshop for Professional Obituary Writers in Portland, Oregon

Amy Starke and Joan Harvey of The Oregonian are planning a training workshop to help professional obit writers enhance their skills. The workshop will be held May 8-11, 2008, in Portland, Oregon.

The Oregonian has agreed to make its conference rooms available for workshop sessions.

"The Oregonian as you may know is the envy of many other newspapers for the
amount of space it devotes to obituaries." the two Oregonian obit writers boast.

And it's true. The paper runs little obits on just about everyone in the Portland circulation area.

Naturally, the deaths of newsmakers get published. But probably the most wonderful obits are the Life Stories, longer feature obits about everyday people, that are fascinating - even to readers who never knew the deceased.

With the workshops, Amy and Joan hope to address such topics as interviewing skills, deep historical/courts and cops research, multimedia skills, focusing and writing tight, approaches to candor in obituaries.

The workshop will be open only to professional obit writers.

Of course, you'll want to know the background of the brains behind the Portland workshop.

Amy Martinez Starke, a newspaper journalist for the past 30 years, has spent the last 16 years at The Oregonian. The Life Story writer (for nearly five years) has written more than 600 story-length obituaries, most of them feature obituaries about ordinary people. Amy has experience in copy editing, layout and wire editing in addition to reporting. She previously worked at The Orange County Register and for small papers in Washington, D.C., and Texas.

Joan Harvey has been writing obits for The Oregonian for the past 10 years. Before taking 30 years off to raise five children, she was a general-assignment reporter and wrote social news for The Oregonian. During her hiatus, she was a freelance food and travel writer for The Oregonian and writer and editor for Portland-area African-American and Jewish newspapers.

Workshop details will be posted on this blog as they become available. Your comments are welcome.

(FYI: This event is not intended to compete with the annual Great Obituary Writers International Conference, which is open to anyone who loves obits. (The 10th Great is scheduled for Toronto, Ontario, June 12-14, 2008.)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Talk about God being your assignment editor

Wally Guenther, my partner-in-grim at Cleveland's Plain Dealer, was reading through faxes, emails and death notices in search of his obit subject for Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2007, when his cubicle mate, Brian Albrecht, suggested he do an obituary for Vincent Fredrick.

Fredrick, 82, had survived two B-17 bomber crashes in Europe during World War II.

He kept a diary of his 35 bombing missions. It was published into a book that was titled "Satan's Lady" after the bomber on which he flew his last 24 missions.

How did Brian know about this guy?

Well, Brian is the go-to guy at the PD for stories about WW2 and the military. He came to work Monday with an interview scheduled at lunchtime with - you guessed it - Vincent Fredrick.

When he called to make sure the appointment was still on, he was told that the man died Friday. So Wally ended up interviewing Fredrick's family.

On top of that, Brian handed information to me that he had received during the summer about another WW2 vet, who had written a memoir of his wartime experiences for his grandchildren.

Yep! He's gone too. Died Nov. 1.

Guess whose "life story" I'm working on this week!

The late Richard Pearson, who was obits editor at The Washington Post, used to say of choosing subjects for obits, "God is my assignment editor." Kay Powell, obits editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and many other obit writers have adopted this phrase as their own.

Yes, God is my assignment editor too. But sometimes he passes that assignment to me through an intermediary, like Brian.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Log Cabin Republican in Kucinich Land

Since I started writing "A Life Story," my weekly obituary feature for The Plain Dealer, I've been focused on celebrating the diversity of the people of Northeast Ohio.

My purpose is to introduce readers to folks in their communities, whom they probably didn't know, and to lifestyles and cultures that may be unfamiliar to them.

Black, white. From places as different as Sri Lanka and Slovakia. Sons of Italy and Daughters of the American Revolution. Old, young. Male, female.

I haven't found a transgender subject yet.

I have written about some dearly departed gays and lesbians, but I've had to be careful what I wrote. I mean, how can you say that a person was gay, when his partner denies it? And what do you do when the partner is cool with it, but the elderly mother and the siblings are in denial?

It's not that I want a "gay" headline or to spell out details about the person's sexual practices. I simply want to write stories about everyday people, who happen to be gay. They're not creatures, who came from outer space or are headed for hell. They're your neighbors, your grocers, your teachers.

Finally, this week I got to write a story about a Log Cabin Republican, who lived in an extremely liberal-leaning neighborhood.

Stanley Mason didn't have a closeted boyfriend or secretive relatives to hinder my report. He was as open about being gay as he was of being a Republican in an area that is likely to vote for native son Dennis Kucinich for president.

He was simply his own person.

Stanley spoke often of growing up with open-minded relatives - including several who were gay. He told friends that he was surprised at the large number of gays who served with him in the military in the Korean War. Plus, he belonged to a gay seniors group.

I was so pleased that I got to include this stuff in his obit, along with his civic activism, love of target-shooting - wearing nothing but a thong - and his community pride.

It's too bad that the pictures that were printed with the story don't show up with the online version. You should have seen the photo of bald-headed, white-bearded Stanley sitting on Santa Claus' lap.