The Death Of Quality Obituaries

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"I can’t believe Patrick Swayze is gonna be on ‘The View’ next week, too bad he can only talk to Whoopi Goldberg. Too soon?"

No, it’s never too soon for Twitter. When death strikes, the reaction is swift, sharp and on a global scale. A summation of one’s entire life can now be reduced to a pithy 140 characters. Here are just a few examples of how we remember the dead in the age of social media:

"eatshootleave has had to say goodbye to too many things that defined her childhood; MJ, Farrah Fawcett, Patrick Swayze, Nissan Sunny and her old fridge…"

"Farrah Fawcett is the only death this summer from my generation, and the most conservative as well, please leave us alone."

"Poor Keith Floyd, he’s got the Farrah Fawcett problem. Someone stupendously famous dying on the same day. Well RIP Keith."

I believe we are facing a serious problem here: the probable death of quality obituaries.

Media is at the crossroads. The number of media outlets actively pursuing "public trust" journalism just keeps on diminishing. And let me tell you, there is no greater call for public trust than when you’re reading an obituary.

Take for example, New Zealand writer Alistair Te Ariki Campbell. His unimaginably horrible life ended just a few weeks ago, predictably enough, in New Zealand. Campbell’s life was filled with depression, dead parents and poetry — we all know that. Yet only through the obituary published by Fairfax do we catch a glimpse of his real life — its battles, failures, momentary joys and unrelenting flow of poetry — and thus gain an insight into this "gravely handsome man who smiled rarely".

Quality obituaries like this don’t write themselves. They need support to thrive and rely for their existence on large media conglomerates which include a stable of broadsheets and mastheads in appropriately dark font.

Quality obituaries take enormous investment. Like the very best examples of investigative journalism, the writing of obituaries requires significant resources, time and effort. It’s the kind of task that is too complex to be left to an intern. In-depth research, confirmation of sources, and extensive background checks are all necessary.

Even more important to obituary writers are the contacts on the ground. Writers need to ingratiate themselves into the confidence of someone who has spent enough time with the deceased to deliver at least one decent anecdote. A general anecdote, as we know, merely provides the starting point of a quality obituary.

What is essential is the inclusion of an All-Encompassing Anecdote (AEA). Some lives, however, require several decades of observation from the quiet and patient writer before the AEA can be grasped. This can be as simple as a telling childhood mishap or some sort of inappropriate adolescent behaviour. The AEA can also extend to uninvestigated criminal activity while an undergraduate and its consequences, like employment with the same organisation or an enduring marriage or several relationships that may be rich with joy or unforgiving and loveless.

As the lay observer can only begin to imagine, the cost for media proprietors in funding and finding the AEA can be enormous.

Bloggers, on the other hand, just don’t do obituaries. The only dead people bloggers care about are former child actors or Karl Marx. And bloggers don’t like dwelling on facts or participating in what the rest of us know as "the real world". You cannot write a quality obituary using Google and Wikipedia or by spending a quiet afternoon at the local library.

The Australian media is struggling to come to terms with this. The obituary of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell was in fact first published in The Guardian, the bastion of epitaphic good practice. And he didn’t die a few weeks ago, it was in fact almost a month ago. It is probably reasonable to point out at this juncture that one of the few media groups not haemorrhaging millions is The Guardian. And guess who published an obituary of Australia’s washed up Ray Barrett?

This demonstrated commercial viability of quality obituaries is the wake-up call our local media so desperately needs. In a healthy democracy, we cannot let obituaries die in the same casket as their subjects. Indeed, quality obituaries should be placed in the same basket as other industries on life support, like arts and culture, public broadcasting and Tony Delroy.

Currently, the finest obituaries written and published in Australia are those written by journalists about journalism.

And what a life journalism led! Year after year, journalism struggled to overcome enormous odds, including censorship, dictatorships and corporate greed. But the battle took its toll, and now it’s gone. Yes, there’s still a kind of  "journalism" out there, but don’t be fooled — it isn’t real. If you read something today and it informs you or makes you think, then you’ve been fooled.

Once upon a time you could get up on a Saturday morning and spend the whole day with The Age or The National Times. These newspapers were as thick as a phone book. You could pretend to read a whole lot of in-depth pieces that took months to put together and after another blissful weekend on the turps, you’d wake up on a Monday morning to discover the government had been thrown out. Journalists in those days were men of honour, lauded wherever they went for their truth telling and their devotion to fact-based inquiry.

Those days have sadly passed. Some newspapers are even run by women. The fact that quality journalism and the male dominion over journalism are both dying at roughly the same time isn’t lost on me.

The flagships of truth that remain are struggling to find an audience. Editors now face an almost impossible workload: managing alcoholism, rampant in flagrante delicto and keeping to deadlines. Putting gross mismanagement, absurd salaries for opinion writers and self-centred predictability aside, the dedicated craft of quality journalism is sadly on the verge of collapse. In its place I predict personality profile pieces, retrospectives and top 10 lists. Who would have thought falling classified ad revenue could wipe out such irreplaceable institutions so very quickly?

Those who control the fourth estate need to consider how they want to be remembered — a 1200 word epitaph reflecting on gains made and opportunities squandered; or death by 140 characters. But remember: hashtags like #RIPPatrickSwayze and #LoveYouMichaelJackson will never be able to convey the sombre gravitas of print.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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