How the Times put together Shadid’s obituary

The New York Times

Anthony Shadid's obituary in The New York Times is a marvel of the form, a remarkably complete sketch of Shadid's very full life, his career moves, even his writing style in just 843 words. You can't help but admire the economy of this Margalit Fox paragraph:

Mr. Shadid’s hiring by The Times at the end of 2009 was widely considered a coup for the newspaper, for he had been esteemed throughout his career as an intrepid reporter, a keen observer, an insightful analyst and a lyrical stylist. Much of his work centered on ordinary people who had been forced to pay an extraordinary price for living in the region — or belonging to the religion, ethnic group or social class — that they did.

There's institutional pride, a 13-word encapsulation of Shadid's professional mien, and an astute analysis of how he made all that work in that pair of sentences.

Perhaps more surprising, the piece was written and edited in an hour and a half, by a newsroom in mourning.

Bill McDonald, the Times' obituaries editor, says his desk had nothing ready on Shadid, even though he'd been captured by forces loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi in Libya last year. "The Libya incident was over before we got to that point," McDonald says. "This was a complete surprise and a complete shock, and we had to mobilize very quickly."

McDonald says Fox put aside "emotional elements." "We had to write about Anthony as we'd write about anyone else," he says. "We don't want to introduce our own grief into the matter. So we have to put aside our own feelings in some ways, as Anthony did himself."

The obit's final two paragraphs, in particular, present Shadid's style in miniature. They come from a news analysis of the Arab Spring Shadid wrote last August from Tunisia, expressing his hope and cynicism rather neatly. Fox found that quote, McDonald says. "She wanted to get his voice into it."

"We could have probably picked any number of excerpts," McDonald says, but that one captured Shadid's analytical and human sides perfectly.

The obituary was assigned at 7 p.m., some time after McDonald first heard about Shadid's death. "There was some question about whether the body had in fact been removed from Syria," he says, and they wanted to make sure Shadid's family had been notified. The 7 p.m. start time gave Fox and the staff 90 minutes to make the national edition, "and then we improved it for the later edition," McDonald says. Other editors chipped in with research and printouts for Fox, and the foreign desk put together its story simultaneously.

"A lot of people rallied," says McDonald.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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