Bruce Weber — not that Bruce Weber — has spent more than eight years writing obituaries for The New York Times. Last week, he wrote his own farewell, penning a story on his resignation from the paper. The journalist, who joined The Times as a staff editor for the Sunday magazine section in 1986, caught up with WWD to talk about his most memorable stories, how he approaches writing about the dead, and whether his departure is indicative of a larger obit for print media.
WWD: How did you get assigned the obit beat?
Bruce Weber: I ended up in obits because I had gone off to write a book about baseball umpires. When I came back — the paper had promised to hold a job for me, but they didn’t tell me what the job was going to be — there were two or three possibilities, and obits seemed like the most interesting one. Before that I had been theater critic and a theater columnist. I’d covered re-creation. I was the paper’s national cultural correspondent between 1997 and 1999. I was on the metro desk. Before that, I wrote the On Stage and Off column in the early Nineties.
WWD: What were your other choices aside from obit writer?
B.W.: One was in the business section. The other one was in the sports department to cover the then New Jersey Nets, which didn’t appeal to me at all.
WWD: How come?
B.W.: Although I liked basketball, I didn’t relish going out to New Jersey every day and spending my time with athletes. I had just come back from writing my book about sports and I had spent a lot of time with sports people. I wanted a different kind of stimulus. Let’s put it that way.
WWD: Whenever I’ve written an obit, I’m acutely aware of the care needed to talk to friends and relatives of the deceased. How did you approach it?
B.W.: I think the first few times you have to call relatives, you’re pretty cautious. One of the things that happens, at least at The New York Times, for good or ill, people perceive an obituary in The New York Times as a kind of honor. Usually the families that we call, I would say, four times out of five, are relieved to hear from us. They feel as though an obit in The Times is going to give validity to the person that they lost. That being said, you are talking to people in some stage of grief. There is a sense that you have to tread a little bit lightly, but one of the things I’ve learned is that if you have a conversational chat about their loved ones, they respond pretty well. There are obvious exceptions to this. We do occasionally write about criminals and people who have committed bad deeds. That can be a little dicier.
WWD: Have you ever written an obit about someone you personally knew?
B.W.: Yes, I have. Usually in journalism if you know the subject of your story or are friends with the subject, that’s kind of anathema. You’re supposed to recuse yourself. In obits, there’s a little bit of leeway there. Part of it is that you can add a kind of intimacy to the obit, which is helpful. On the other hand, you don’t want it to seem like a eulogy. I’ve done it a couple of times and I’d say half of them turned out well, and the other half, not so well.
WWD: What was the silliest or most outrageous obit you’ve written?
B.W.: There was the guy [Robert Degen] who wrote “The Hokey Pokey,” which actually turned into an extremely interesting obit because it was the only song he ever wrote. He copyrighted it and there were huge legal battles over who actually wrote it because there were a number of people who had come up with songs that were remarkably similar. That ended up being a sort of interesting legal history story and musical history story, and it was funny, too. All of this serious legal mumbo jumbo about “you put your right foot in, you put your right foot out, you put your left foot in and you shake it all about,” you know? I spent two or three days getting to the bottom of this. No one knows more about “The Hokey Pokey” than I do at this point.
WWD: What was the most challenging obit to write?
B.W.: I did an 11-year-old-girl, which was really painful to write. She was an actor who had appeared in the Lion King. It was a terrible story.
WWD: You have a very personal touch when you write. Did you bring that to obit writing or is it something you developed?
B.W.: I think if you were to trace my obits over the last eight years, you would find that I’ve taken a few more stylistic liberties. You get more confident about what you can say about a subject and what would be all right to say. It’s confidence about the form of writing and your confidence as a writer.
WWD: How many page ones have you had?
B.W.: A dozen maybe.
WWD: How does The Times choose who gets an obit?
B.W.: They get chosen by the people who run the paper. You can usually tell whether an obit is a front page candidate. When Phillip Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose, it was pretty clear that was going to go on the front page.
WWD: When you write an obit for a celebrity, how do you get to the meat of who they are — it’s hard enough to do when you’re interviewing a living celebrity.
B.W.: I’m not necessarily sure you get any closer to the meat of who they are in an obit than you do in an interview. You have the advantage in an obituary in reading a lifetime’s worth of what they’ve said in public and what other people have said about them. In the case of an actor or a director, you have this body of work…you can make inferences to all of that stuff, but I’m not sure that the obit writer has much of an advantage over the profile writer.
WWD: Which celebrity obits stand out that you’ve written?
B.W.: I wrote Mike Nichols’ obit. I was a Mike Nihcols fan as just about everybody in the world is, but the depth and breadth of his career really took me by surprise. I thought I knew a good deal about him, but it turns out I was only familiar with a fraction of what he had done.
WWD: Considering advance obits, how often were you filing?
B.W.: With eight-and-a-half years, 1,000 obits, that’s 120 a year or something like that, so that’s 10 a month, two and a half a week. That’s reasonably productive. I’m sitting in front of Sam Roberts who writes about three of them to every one of mine.
WWD: In your last Times story “Obit for the Obits,” you referred to writing advanced obits and wrote: “We know they’re going. We don’t know how. We don’t know when. Which is the main reason I’m getting out while the getting is good.” In referencing the end of your Times career, were you also referring to the end of print journalism?
B.W.: I hope not. I’ve been at The Times for 30 years and in print journalism for about 35, and I wish it well. I really hope that all of our journalistic outlets find a way to monetize the digital enterprise in a way that keeps journalism alive, in a way that keeps writing alive. My sense is that The Times and other places have yet to figure out the code for how to produce and sell journalism on the web in a way that’s going to support the enterprise, and that seems to be what the big struggle is about. I don’t have the answer. I hope I’m not saying goodbye to the newspaper business — I mean, I hope I’m not standing as a symbol for the newspaper business by walking away.
WWD: Did you take a buyout?
WWD: Media is changing so much. How is the mood at the paper amid another round of buyouts?
B.W.: I think everybody here is talking about it all the time. I don’t think it’s a mystery that The Times has tried a lot of things that haven’t worked and a lot of things that have worked. It certainly has been reported around that the structure of the paper is undergoing changes. There’s going to be a smaller newsroom. If you’re asking if people are sanguine about that here, the answer is no. They are concerned, and they have the right to be concerned.
WWD: What’s next for you?
B.W.: I just got married and my wife and I have bought a house on the far east end of Long Island and we’re going to put the house together, and I’ve got a book that I’d like to write. It’s a biography of E.L. Doctorow whose front page obituary I wrote.