Boston Globe Slowbituaries (Letters From The Editor Edition)

In response to the hardworking staff’s recent posts about the Boston Globe’s slowbituaries (see here and here), Globe obituary editor Bryan Marquard has graciously sent us two thorough and thoughtful emails.

Email #1:

Mr. Carroll,

In answer to your questions, two factors contribute primarily to delays, although they are part and parcel of the same phenomenon.

As you’re probably aware, the economy and changes wrought by the Internet created significant financial difficulties for newspapers. That plays out in two ways that affect obituaries at the Globe.

First, there are fewer reporters, which means the Globe has to carefully consider how it deploys newsroom resources. Two reporters are assigned full time to obituaries — me and one other reporter. I am the lead obituary writer and the obituaries editor, which means that in addition to researching, reporting, and writing obituaries, I’m also responsible for reviewing all requests for staff obituaries (at least a couple of thousand a year), choosing which will be assigned, picking which reporter will write a particular obit, vetting the request to ensure there aren’t unpleasant surprises in the obit subject’s past, assisting the reporter with research (particularly if the reporter is a freelancer), and editing and fact-checking obits when they are filed.

At other large newspapers (notably The New York Times and The Washington Post), more full-time reporters are assigned to obituaries.

Second, the Globe’s second tier of reporters for obituaries has changed in the past few years. Formerly, student co-ops who work on the Metro desk were available for considerably more obituary work. Now, I’m lucky if I can get one obit out of a Metro co-op once every one or two weeks. Because the number of reporters in the newsroom has dropped, co-ops assume more responsibilities as they work the phones tracking down information on breaking news. The rising importance of 24/7 websites also contributes to their workload. Someone has to report and write shorter items that go into the breaking news updates online throughout the day. Most staff reporters are working on longer versions of stories that will be posted later in the afternoon or for the next day’s newspaper. All that means co-ops are rarely available for obituaries.

Those two factors mean that, as obituaries editor, I turn to freelancers much more than in the past. The talent level varies in that realm, and I have to bear in mind that freelancers are working for more than one editor, and usually for more than one publication. Because of that, I am less able to demand a quick turnaround. Also, because of the financial pressures noted above, the Globe currently is publishing one obituary each day that is produced by a staff reporter, a student co-op, or a freelancer.

In the past, the Globe would publish much shorter obits, perhaps at the 400-word length, by student co-ops just to get on the record the deaths of those whose public profiles weren’t as high as others. We no longer have the co-op time or the staff/freelance resources to take that approach.

Meanwhile, as financial pressures have taken a toll, the Globe has worked to improve the quality of each obituary that is published. The obituaries on Mr. Bankuti and Mr. Corsetti may have appeared later than they would have in the past, but they are far superior to the kinds of obituaries each formerly would have received, when their lives might have been captured in 400 words in a dry news obit, rather than in the narrative approach the Globe takes with the feature obituaries that are now published.

That, essentially, is the trade-off. Readers are getting much higher quality obituaries, but fewer, and often not as promptly.

Also, I make specific decisions on which obituaries can run days or a few weeks after someone dies, and which should run by or before a memorial service. All lives are interesting, some more than others.

I hope this helps.

Bryan Marquard

Email #2:

Mr. Carroll,

What I sent earlier in the day addressed two major points regarding the timing and delays in publishing certain obituaries. Obviously, many other factors come into play.

Mr. Bankuti’s obituary, which you mentioned in your blog, is an example. Death notices about him were published in suburban newspapers, but not in the Globe. Nearly a month after his death, the family reached out to a Globe reporter and requested a staff obituary. I reviewed the request, thought his life was interesting, and assigned an obit.

Something similar occurred with Royal Cloyd, founding director of the Boston Center for the Arts. He had moved to Maine long ago. When he died in February, no death notice was published (at least none that I could find online when I looked afterward). Several weeks after he died, someone from his immediate circle of acquaintances notified the Globe. His importance to the city’s arts scene merited an obit, even that long after the fact.

Those are two small examples. The publication timing of every obit has a story behind it that often tends to be complex.

The Globe publishes as many obits as possible, as quickly as possible, even though a variety of constraints are involved. I haven’t discussed, for example, that the Globe receives about five times as many requests for news obituaries as can be accommodated by available staff, freelancers, and student co-ops. That means we’re always making difficult decisions, which also affect timing.

Mr. Corsetti’s obit, for example, was delayed by some of the previously discussed challenges, including that when he died, all my writers had assignments.

Also, I try to keep a varied mix of obituary subjects from month to month. I hesitated initially to assign an obituary on Mr. Corsetti because I worry about running too many media-related obits during the course of the year. We had run a few in recent months on higher-profile Boston media figures. Doing so can leave the impression that we take care of our own at the expense of other professions. Ultimately, his work on high-profile stories that are part of Boston’s history persuaded me to assign an obit once a writer was available. The first free writer, however, was a student co-op who couldn’t turn around Mr. Corsetti’s obit quickly because of other responsibilities. And there you have it — another lengthy explanation for timing that, from outside the building, looked simple to criticize.

Bryan Marquard

As we said before, we didn’t mean to be critical. We were just curious.

Regardless, we’re indebted to Mr. Marquard for his even-handed response.

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11 Responses to Boston Globe Slowbituaries (Letters From The Editor Edition)

  1. Mike Pardee says:

    Yes, a very thoughtful (and instructive) explanation. Glad you asked him. When I see Marquard’s byline on an “obit,” I know it will be well written–indeed a well-crafted feature story about the life of some interesting person.

  2. Michael Pahre says:

    The reason why it takes them so long to churn out obituaries is that one of the two writers spends his time writing lengthy responses to outside queries about why it’s taking so goddamn long to write the obits.

  3. Michael Pardee says:

    Next thing you know, they’ll have to engage the fine services of Journatic to whip up obits. Filipino writers doing the work for dimes on the inch, and with Anglo-sounding bylines to boot.

  4. “Patch” wins? The obituary of Laszlo Nyitrai, one week after his death:

  5. Bill says:

    If what he so thoroughly details as the explanation is true–and there’s no reason to doubt it–then remind me: why do we even need “the Globe” anymore? If this how they handle timely news and local events, then what do they bring to the party, except their self-inflated opinion of themselves as an important institution? At some point, you no longer bring much to the party and have dealt yourself out of the game, even if you persist in being a legend in your own mind.

    • Michael Pardee says:

      As much as we like to point out its shortcomings, the Globe is a hugely important local institution. Check the newsstands and your nightly TV news. You won’t find another media outlet devoting the resources necessary to watch-dog state government. Recall the Globe’s exposes on the probation dept; the laxity in getting repeat drunken drivers off the roads; a food-labeling system that is fishy when it comes to fish, and so on. We need the Globe, I’d reckon.

    • Have to say, I’ve noticed that the Globe has quicker and more accurate stories on important national and world news than its NY-based owner. Markedly so.

      • Campaign Outsider says:

        Huh? Isn’t most of it FROM the NYT (and other wire services)? Or is the hws missing something here.

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