Birth and Rebirth of an Obituary
The periodic rumors of Fidel Castro’s death may be aggravating for some journalists assigned to chase them, but one New York Times reporter considers the false alarms to be lucky breaks.
The Times commonly writes obituaries of important people years in advance, well aware of the difficulty of reporting and writing the lengthy life summary of a former president, athlete or Cuban dictator.
As part of his research, DePalma looked into the legendary story of Herbert L. Matthews' 1957 reporting about the revolutionary leader, who was thought by some to be dead at the time. Matthews' stories raised Castro's stature and helped him overthrow the Batista regime. Depalma turned his reporting for the paper into a book, “The Man Who Invented Fidel.”
The obituary, on the other hand, has become "star-crossed," -- "something I’ve been living with for a number of years now," he said in a telephone interview.
DePalma filed the obituary in 2001, and as the years passed it sat in the Times’ editorial system with just a rough edit. Castro was healthy, Depalma said -- "a spry 75 at the time."
Then in July 2006, DePalma received a call from the Times' foreign desk. Castro had ceded power to his brother, Raul, and many believed his death was imminent. It was time to dust off the obituary, and to try return to Cuba to report the story.
The desk e-mailed the article back to DePalma, but half of the 8,000-word article was gone. "It ended at the CIA plot to have his beard fall out" in the 1960s DePalma said. (That and CIA attempts on Castro's life are described in this BBC article -- scroll down to the "Missile Crisis" subhead.)
The next day, when DePalma arrived at the Times building to try to piece together the obituary and fly to Cuba, he learned that the file had been damaged when the newsroom switched publishing systems, and the other half was gone.
Fortunately, they had more time -- Castro hadn't died. And DePalma still had a "trusty old paper copy" of the article under his desk. Times staff in the dictation room (a holdover from the days when reporters commonly called their stories in) got the story back into electronic form. The near-miss spurred the paper to finalize the obituary and even lay it out with photos.
Two weeks ago, when DePalma was on the train home to New Jersey, he was notified of the rumors of Castro’s death. There was another scramble to get everything in order, only to learn that, again, Castro lives.
That's when editors realized another problem: since the Times had recently switched to a smaller paper size, the story as written and laid out simply didn't fit the new page format. The next week, DePalma trimmed it and the story was again laid out. Ready to go, again.
"We have a debt to Castro because we had a chance to resize it," Depalma said. "That is now the version that I keep in my bag. I have been carrying it in my briefcase since July (2006). I have it next to my passport and a list of Cuban sources."
The rumors roared back last Friday. Within a few minutes, DePalma heard from a Cuban-American friend in New Jersey and a colleague at a Bronx playground who had received a phone call from his son's nanny.
Just as quickly, though, the rumors died down, and the obit remained in the briefcase.