Within hours of the death of Antonin Scalia, The New York Times had this story on the World Wide Web. Even more impressive, it spread across three full pages of the newspaper I picked up off my driveway 3,000 miles away from the newspaper’s Manhattan offices less than 18 hours after news broke.
How did Adam Liptak write 2,500 words that recounted all the significant aspects of such a complex individual in time to allow paginators to do their thing, presses to roll, papers to be shipped and deliveries to be made?
The answer is that he had written it in advance, of course. Or at least significant parts of it.
One of the magician’s secrets at large dailies is that they cheat death and often have obits written for just such a day. Supreme Court candidates, heads of state, major celebrities – all might have obits waiting on their fateful day. (Heck, in 1991 I wa asked to write an obituary for Bob Dylan for a major daily newspaper because the singer-poet was in the hospital with some undisclosed illness. He has outlived my words of his passing.)
As far as I can tell, the editors of the Times haven’t yet discussed how that story came together. I’d be very interested to hear all the details, including how the newspaper heard the justice had died and the lengths staffers went to confirm it. The first step of writing an obit in advance is “a clip job.” Call up the significant profiles you’ve done on these folks in the past. Stitch them together. Remember, the lede isn’t really important in advance. That will be evident at the time of death. …
It might sound morbid, but you can do this to some degree on the local level. If you have older city council members, elderly celebrities living in town, or just important people who will be news when they pass, consider throwing together a few facts now. You might augment it with contact numbers for that fateful day.
Look, we are all shuffling off this mortal coil one fine day. It doesn’t hurt to be prepared.