The One Person Every Newspaper Has To Hire in 2017
All newspapers essentially publish the same news, they just dress it up in different ways. But there are three vital pages that make a good newspaper great, that set the tone of the entire publication, that make it unique and engender deep loyalties in readers.
First, the design and content of the front. That’s obvious. Second, the quality, incisiveness and knowledge of its leader page commentators. And, third, its obituaries page. Not the speculative gloss of sport, business and features. It is death that can bring a paper to life like few other subjects.
No other form of journalism deliberately eschews youth (in both subject matter and contributor), no other kind of material requires a writer to start at the end and work backwards, no other article demands scrupulous accuracy without (usually) the need for legal intervention.
In my experience, the obituary writer has always been one of the most learned and experienced journalistic specialists, people who could encapsulate a life – its tragedy, achievement, poignancy, meaning and impact - in a few hundred words, written at furious pace having burrowed into mountains of research to uncover half-hidden nuggets. And, like all specialists, you only really understand their value when they’ve gone.
So 2016 should have belonged to them. Instead it was the year in which, ironically, we witnessed the death of the obituary, replaced with a shallowness in which the writer has usurped the subject as the journalistic focal point.
Perhaps it was inevitable that death in our digital age has become all about ‘me’. Just look at the George Michael obituaries. On Christmas Day, it was revealed that the 53-year-old pop singer had died at home, after years of astonishing success followed by years of personal torment.
The obituaries that followed were relegated in favour of the ego-driven revelations of writers who tried to explain what ‘he meant to me’, how George helped ‘me to live my life’, as if the impact he had on them was more significant in his passing than the impact fame had on George. Journalists who had met him for an hour or so and exchanged the occasional email grabbed the limelight to tell the world ‘who he really was’.
It was the same with David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Terry Wogan, Caroline Aherne, Victoria Wood and the dozens of departed in 2016. ‘We’ became as important as ‘them’.
Just when the skills of the obit writer and editor are needed, they’ve gone. Most newspapers don’t employ these specialists anymore, or at least not those who’ve seen more of life than most of us. Over the past decade or so, they’ve been among the first to perish in annual culls.
How short-sighted was that? For 2016 is not – as some nonsensical Twitterers would argue – the worst year ever because so many famous people have died. It is in fact the dawn of a new era of celebrity death. If we assume that mass media was born in the 1950s, when television ownership became more widespread, cinema more mainstream, music more popular, sports stars more heroic, capitalists more lauded and societal achievement more recognised, then any teenager from back then will be at least in their 80s now.
Add to that mix, the outliers - the unusually young such as Michael, the tragic such as Prince and the victims of more common diseases, such as Bowie - then you have a pretty bleak ‘perfect storm’ in which famous people are going to be dropping like flies, just as non-famous people have been doing for quite a little bit longer.
Admittedly, the writer-led me-me-me revelations that have become so commonplace in 2016 have always been part of the obituary process. The difference is that now they seem to have become the only part, or at least the most significant – perhaps because instant contribution is now more valuable in journalism than studied articles. There is no longer a requirement for dispassionate insight, for honest objectivity and proper analysis. It is still there, if you look hard enough, but now it's as much about the survivors as those who’ve passed.
Perhaps that is the inevitable consequence of living in the ‘age of celebrity’ as we have been these last 60 or so years, when culture has shaped our lives to a greater degree than religion, politics and family. Once we measured life by achievements, tales of heroism, the pursuit of solving the most perplexing conundrums, perhaps even a life defined by mere survival. Now it’s measured not just by what someone’s life meant but by what that life meant to us.
There is an obscure rule in journalism that’s known as the Massingberd Mantra, named after the former – and brilliant - Daily Telegraph obituaries editor, Hugh. About 30 years ago he transformed that newspaper’s obituaries pages, injecting personality and anecdotes to replace the dull CV-style list of achievements of the recently deceased. His mantra was that no matter how life is or was lived, there is cause for fascination and delight.
It used to mean fascination and delight for ordinary people and members of the aristocracy, for teachers and nurses as well as actors and crooners, for obscure scientists as well as Prime Ministers. His pages, and the achievements, aspirations and bizarre facts they contained, defined what made that newspaper great. Now, I fear, his mantra has been turned into the fascination and delight that journalists can bring to their own identities.
The least selfish form of journalism has become the most selfish. Which is why 2017 needs to become the year newspapers hire instead of fire, rediscovering the talents of the obituary editor. Because we’re going to lose an awful lot of people. Again.