We are happy to report that the obituary posted on the website of the Chicago Sun-Times for Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, was just a mistake in the paper’s online publishing management system; she’s alive and well, and the page has been un-published.
Newspapers pre-write obituaries for most famous people and keep them on file, along with documentation that can be used for the article of record when the person actually dies.
An interesting story in the New York Times explained how the national paper of record runs its legendary obituary desk, and another more recent op-ed discusses a few misconceptions people have about the process.
One of my assignments, when I wrote for a daily newspaper in Ohio, was to write the obituaries. It’s not a morbid job, or anything like that, since absolutely everybody dies at some point. And for very good papers, it’s usually the best practice to have material on hand and ready to go when that eventually happens.
I can’t say I ever prematurely published an obit, but I can see how this sort of thing could happen. I have, however, been asked to rewrite obits for the record, because these are things family members clip out and keep in their Bibles, and stuff like that. It has to be right.
For her part, Ms Lewis handled it with a sense of humor, telling Politico that “the report of my death was an exaggeration,” in the style of Mark Twain, and admitting that everyone makes mistakes. Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg pre-wrote the obit, and he called Ms Lewis to apologize. She was very understanding and even complimented him on the opening, which she said was “pretty sweet, frankly.”
According to a cached version on Google, the obit began as follows: “THIS IS AN ADVANCE OBIT. LEWIS IS NOT DEAD. DO NOT RUN WITHOUT CONFIRMING. BORN JULY 20, 1953 Karen Lewis was fearless. The president of the …”
Sweet, indeed. The paper will likely keep the obit on hand and add to it as Ms Lewis continues as the president of the teachers’ union. There’s more to come.