Above the Fold Obit: The Height of Recognition

The New York Times is the gold standard of obituaries, employing a robust staff of writers and researchers to develop informative pieces on the lives and times of the famous, infamous and influential (both well-known and obscure.) Unlike the obits you read about beloved aunts and uncles in your local newspaper, the Times strives to tell all the dirt that’s fit to print, including the pratfalls and failures of the dearly departed. Criminals, cheaters, the goats of sport – if worthy of an obituary in the Times, all will have their stories presented largely unvarnished.

Recognizing that more than 99 percent of the people who bite the big one receive no treatment from the New York Times, it should be considered an honor to receive even a couple column inches in the Grey Lady. Devoted readers of the Times will note the editors have established an obituary hierarchy by which the recently deceased are ranked in importance. I can’t say I have the secret decoder ring for where in the hierarchy any particular individual might fit (although I’m pretty good at guessing where the paper will slot an obit in the next day’s issue), but I’m sure it is an unscientific combination of accomplishments, notoriety, recentness of glory, quirkiness of the story, level of tragedy involved, and Q-factor.

Consider Michael Jackson, the King of Pop (aka. Wacko Jacko by some hard-hearted headline writers over at the NY Post) who tragically OD’d on Propofol shortly before he was to undertake a 50+ come-back performance schedule in the UK. Like all people on Earth not hermetically sealed in a mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnall’s porch, I heard the breaking news of Jackson’s death the afternoon of June 24, 2009.

I had no doubt whatsoever that his obit would appear the next day on the front page, with a picture, above the fold. Sure enough, there on the front page of the paper at the very top, date-line June 25, 2009, was a four-column photo and headline announcing the shocking death. Including the photos, the obit (which jumped inside for many more column-inches) took up almost half the front page of the paper of record. Contrast that with the death notice on the same day of iconic pinup girl and TV and movie star Farrah Fawcett. Her popularity and notoriety didn’t rival Jackson’s but she was still world-famous. The NYT placed a tiny photo and a few words announcing her demise along with the page number in the back where readers could learn more.

This is the hierarchy as I see it, from highest to lowest:

1. Front page, above the fold, banner headline, photograph (usually reserved for major heads of state such as a US President, Royalty of major countries, Popes)
2. Front page, above the fold, photograph (Major politicians, entertainers, writers)
3. Front page, below the fold, photograph (Important politicians, entertainers, business people, writers, key NYT employees)
4. Front page, below the fold, no photo (Politicians, entertainers, business people, scientists, quirky people)
5. Front page, notice at the bottom, photograph, obit inside
6. Front page, notice as the bottom, no photograph, obit inside
7. Inside page (Of course, there is a hierarchy inside that consists of width of headline, number of column-inches, etc, that I won’t bother to further break down)
8. No obituary (99+ percent of humanity. In fact, I’ve actually read obits for famous animals that rate higher than humans, eg. Koko the gorilla who communicated using sign language.)

Now, to satisfy your curiosity, a sampling in no particular order of the “above-the-fold” crowd: (dates are when the obit appeared.)

Steve Jobs (Oct 6, 2011)
Frank Sinatra (May 16, 1998)
George Harrison (Dec 1, 2001)
Leonard Bernstein (Oct 15, 1990)
John Lennon (Dec 9, 1980)
Richard Nixon (April 23, 1994)
Pope John Paul II (April 3, 2005) – Banner headline
Albert Einstein (April 19, 1955)
Josef Stalin (March 6, 1953) – Banner headline
Marilyn Monroe (August 6, 1962)
Franklin Roosevelt (April 13, 1945) – Banner headline

Adolph S. Ochs (April 9, 1935)
Robert F. Kennedy (June 6, 1968) – Banner headline
Bob Hope (July 29, 2003)
Bing Crosby (October 15, 1977)
Henry Ford (April 8, 1947)
Thomas Edison (October 18, 1931)
Elizabeth Taylor (March 24, 2001)
Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 4, 1968) – Banner headline
Ernest Hemingway (July 3, 1961)

A truly amazing line-up of 20th and 21st Century icons. Many hundreds more luminaries have had their obituaries appear on the front page of the New York Times, but “above the fold” is where the real movers and shakers are separated from the rest of the world.

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