Steve Jobs and re-imagining obituaries

This article, “Steve Jobs and re-imagining obituaries,” by Michelle V. Rafter appeared on her blog, Word Count: Freelancing in the Digital Age (http://michellerafter.com/)
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To do great writing, read great writing. Here’s the great writing I’ve been reading this week.

If you’re like me, over the past few days you’ve probably spent some time – or a lot of time – reading about Steve Jobs. The Apple Computer founder and ex-CEO died of pancreatic cancer this week at 56. He’d retired in August after having been on a leave of absence since early this year from the company he and a friend started in his parents’ garage in 1976.

It’s been a time for reflecting on the mark that Jobs left, not just on the technology industry, but on how people communicate and connect, and where he stands in the pantheon of American inventors and innovators.

For writers, it’s also been an opportunity to study a basic but often bungled story type: the obituary.

Studying the Obituary

Obituaries are a journalism staple. Open to the back of any local newspaper and you’ll see them. These days, most of what you see are paid obituaries that families write themselves and buy by the column inch, since financially-challenged newspapers don’t have as much space to devote to them as they used to. What you see is usually terribly written.

During the semester I taught an intro to news writing class in a graduate journalism program, students were required to write an obit as part of the general curriculum. It was one of the harder exercises of the semester. Why? Writing a good obituary is more difficult than it looks. Most students structured their stories chronologically, starting with when the person was born, and moving through where they went to school and worked, who they married, when they died – just like those paid obits in the back pages of the paper.

But when someone dies, readers don’t want a laundry list of facts and dates. They want the most important stuff and they want it right away: who the person was, why what they did mattered and how they made a mark on their community or the world.

The Modern Obit

Today, obituaries can cover the basis but take many different forms, which is apparent if you look at what’s been written about Jobs. Besides the classic, straight narrative, obits or tributes can be a personal remembrance, photo montage, video, slideshow or compilation of quotes from the famous or not-so-famous. One company, Mint Digital, disassembled a MacBook Pro and using the parts to create a Steve Jobs portrait – that’s it at the top of this post.

Here are a handful of Jobs obituaries and other tributes that stuck with me for their context, emotion or originality:

Traditional Obituary – Straight forward obituaries from the New York Times and Washington Post, attempt to put the man behind the Mac, iPod and iPhone in perspective, as a 21st century entrepreneur, tech visionary and marketer with a prickly, secretive side that made him a difficult subject to interview or photograph.

Personal Remembrance – Long-time Wall Street Journal tech columnist and All Things D cofounder Walter Mossberg shared stories about a side of Jobs most people, including reporters, never saw. After returning to Apple in 1997, Jobs called Mossberg Sunday evenings for some off-the-record shop talk. Later when he was sick, Jobs invited Mossberg to visit him at home and the two went for a walk:

He explained that he walked each day, and that each day he set a farther goal for himself, and that, today, the neighborhood park was his goal. As we were walking and talking, he suddenly stopped, not looking well. I begged him to return to the house, noting that I didn’t know CPR and could visualize the headline: “Helpless reporter lets Steve Jobs die on the sidewalk.”

But he laughed, and refused, and, after a pause, kept heading for the park. We sat on a bench there, talking about life, our families, and our respective illnesses. (I had had a heart attack some years earlier.) He lectured me about staying healthy. And then we walked back.

Apology – Brian Lam used Jobs’ passing to write a long apologia and explain what happened while he was editor at Gizmodo during the infamous iPhone 4 leak in 2010. After an Apple employee lost a phototype of the phone and it ended up in the hands of a Gizmodo reporter who wrote about it, Lam exchanged numerous telephone calls with an increasingly more frustrated Jobs, who wanted the device back but didn’t want to publicly confirm what it was. Lam held out and got confirmation in writing, but later regretted it. “I thought about the dilemma every day for about a year and half,” he writes in The Atlantic. “It caused me a lot of grief, and I stopped writing almost entirely. It made my spirit weak. Three weeks ago, I felt like I had had enough. I wrote my apology letter to Steve.”

Website – For a day after Jobs died, tech site BoingBoing temporarily rebooted its design to mimick the then-revolutionary (and still very black and white) graphical user interface of the original 1984 Macintosh computer.

Slideshow – As part of its coverage of Jobs’ passing, the New York Times asked readers to send in thoughts and photos, which the paper assembled into a “Reader Memories” slideshow. One family of a grandmother in Chile who recently died of cancer sent in a picture of her in bed with a MacBook Pro on her lap making a last video-phone call to a granddaughter in Belgium.

Video – For its homage, social media new site Mashable compiled a video of Jobs’ 10 most “magical” moments, including introducing the first Macintosh and launching the iPod, iPhone and iPad. In place of the photographs of Bob Dylan, Pablo Picasso, Maria Calas and other square pegs originally featured in the classic “Think Different” commercial Gizmodo’s Jesus Diaz substituted photos and videos of Jobs during his various stints at Apple, granting him star status through association.

Cartoon – Hugh McLeod, the Gaping Void cartoonist, used the copy from the same ”Think Different” commercial as the basis for a text-only cartoon that he posted on his website and offered free to anyone who wanted to download it (I ran it here yesterday).

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