Dead Lines

The Denver dailies change the way they handle obituaries -- for better and for worse.

"Writing obituaries is usually a beginning reporter's job," notes obit specialist Jim Sheeler. "I think that's usually why they're done so poorly. But obituaries can be stories that teach you a little bit more about life through death. And I don't really think it matters how old you are to learn those lessons."

Sheeler should know. He's only 33 but looks younger -- facts he prefers to downplay. "A lot of people probably think I'm this sixty-year-old guy who's all burnt out," he says, laughing. "They're surprised when they see me. But when they realize I'm there to get a real story with a beginning, middle and end to it and that I'm trying to learn everything I possibly can about this person, they really open up."

The willingness of just plain folks to share extremely personal memories during a time of sorrow helps explain why Sheeler's "A Colorado Life" is arguably the finest regularly scheduled feature in the Sunday Denver Post.

But although Sheeler's contributions, which he freelances to the Post, will continue to brighten the paper, other obituary-related matters are in flux. Since April 2, obits at the Post and the Rocky Mountain News have come with a charge. The move was reportedly made in part to guarantee that such items get into print within days of an individual's demise instead of weeks or even longer. However, Garrett Ray, a newspaper veteran and retired CSU journalism professor who's written extensively about how to improve obituaries, thinks that explanation has some holes in it.

"If they say they were behind, then they were behind," Ray allows. "But newspapers always make choices in terms of allocating the space and resources they have, and if they thought it was important enough, they could say, 'We'll provide two more pages every day for obits and produce more staff-written obits.' That means they'd have to give up two pages of something else, which isn't an easy choice. There are always tradeoffs -- but in this case, I think they made the wrong call."

At the same time, Ray praises the Post for assigning longtime staffer Claire Martin to write long-form obits on an almost-daily basis starting this week. Granted, other observers see the move as an attempt to blunt critics who think the latest obituary strategy could lead down a slippery slope; last month, the Philadelphia Daily News announced it had created a pay-obit section for pets. But Martin's eagerness to follow the Sheeler blueprint and celebrate the legacy of everyday Joes and Janes is promising.

"I'm interested in people whose obituaries might not be singled out for special mention because of high-profile accomplishments or the roles they play in society, like city council members or people on boards," she says. "I'll write about them, too, I'm sure. But the next day, I hope I'll be writing about someone from a tamale factory."

Obits in general have seldom gotten much respect in the journalism field, but this year is different. On April 8, the New York Times earned a richly warranted Pulitzer Prize in the public-service category for "A Nation Challenged," special sections about terrorism, war and unrest that were prompted by the attacks on September 11. But even as the Pulitzer judges praised the manner in which the Times "coherently and comprehensively covered the tragic events...and tracked the developing story, locally and globally," they made special mention of victim profiles that continue to appear under the banner "Portraits of Grief." These items are usually just a few inches long, but their authors consistently and artfully manage to capture the qualities of those lost in the World Trade Center. The April 7 sketches of casualties such as a Jamaican man with twelve godchildren who was labeled a "dispenser of joy" and a 23-year-old born on the Fourth of July are typical: All these months later, they're still capable of inducing bittersweet tears.

According to Dallas, Texas-based obit expert Carolyn Gilbert, the approach taken to "Profiles of Grief" was a new one for the Times. "For years, they almost rejected the idea that ordinary people should be recognized at this level of obituary," she says. "But they reversed their philosophy in this case, and the result was staggering. These people weren't eighty-year-olds who'd reached the end of their lives and had fourteen grandchildren; many of them were young people in the prime of their careers with growing families. That was why it was such a shock to the system, and I think it jolted the average reader into realizing the value of the obituary."

Gilbert needed no such nudge. A former schoolteacher who went on to become an analyst and consultant in the areas of public policy and communications, she's been a closet obituary reader since her youth; forty years ago, when she left her tiny hometown of Electra, Texas, to attend Baylor University in Waco, she says, "I kept my subscriptions to the community papers from around Electra -- to keep up with the dying, I suppose."

More recently, Gilbert decided that obituary writers deserved more attention, and she set out to rectify the situation. Hence the creation of a Web site, www.obitpage.com, which provides "a forum for research and analysis of obituary writing" and identifies and maintains "a network of writers, historians, researchers, and others who follow the lure of the obituary." She has also founded an annual obituary-writing convention. Gilbert concedes that when she first started contacting obit scribes for the inaugural event, which was held in Archer City, Texas, "people were amazed, because the lowly obituary writer typically doesn't get this kind of recognition. Joe Simnacher, who's the dean of obituary writers for the Dallas Morning News, called up and asked, 'This isn't a chili cookoff, is it?' And I said, 'No, it's real. I promise.'"

The Fourth Great Obituary Writers' National Conference will take place from May 31 to June 1 in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Among the panelists scheduled are Alana Baranick, an obit authority with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Kay Powell, obituary editor for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and keynote speaker Nigel Starck, a University of South Australia professor who's conducting a research study of obituaries from across the globe. "This will really lift us to an international scope," Gilbert effuses.

Predictably, Gilbert isn't a fan of the paid obituary, and not only because its rise may well impede the growth of what she views as a journalistic art. She's also concerned about the cost -- a topic she became well versed in earlier this year, when her 81-year-old father, R.C. Milford Jr., passed away. She wrote obituaries for him, and when she contacted several publications about running them, she received a wide variety of quotes. For instance, the Dallas Morning News publishes obits using an agate type size that's smaller than the one most often employed by the Post or the Rocky; fourteen lines fit in a single inch, and a photo counts as 22 lines. Since the Dallas paper charges $3.97 per line on Sundays, a ten-inch obituary with an additional photo would cost (gulp) $634.14. The fee at the Houston Chronicle was potentially even higher; the Chron asks for $8.91 per line.

Prices at smaller papers were generally better but still hefty. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram charged her $335 for one publication of an 84-line obit with photo; the Wichita Falls Times Record News cost $225 for a single run of a 100-plus line obit with photo; and the smallish Olney Enterprise requested a comparatively modest $143 for a photo and around 200 lines of text. Overall, Gilbert says, she was "stunned" by the expense.

Because of differences in typeface and other variables, directly comparing costs at different papers is nearly impossible -- but it's safe to say that obits at the Post and the Rocky don't come cheap. Jim Nolan, spokesman for the Denver Newspaper Agency, which is now handling obits at the papers, quotes the average price as $11 per line, which works out to about $88 per inch of copy. Still, Nolan emphasizes that the papers won't put dollars above sensitivity.

"We have told the funeral homes that if they have a hardship or indigent case, we will work with them to try and accommodate the family," Nolan says, adding, "Any profitability is a by-product of trying to provide a service to our readers, and this is the way the industry has arrived at doing that when it comes to obituaries. When we contemplated doing this, we surveyed 25 major metros, and we discovered that we were the only ones not charging for obits. The industry consensus seems to be that this is the best way to go about things from a service standpoint."

A further benefit, from Nolan's perspective, is that paid obits allow families to do things their way, publishing precisely what they'd like about their loved one. But because journalists aren't overseeing the operation, the potential for mistakes is increased. For instance, an April 4 obit stated that a woman was survived by a laundry list of kin "and the Denver Broncos," which, if true, suggests that the players are more closely related than anyone suspected. Just as important, says retired prof Ray, such blurbs don't provide the reading satisfaction that an obituary written by a pro might.

"Most family-written obits are overly sentimental and flowery and do not give people who didn't know that person a real sense of what he or she was like," Ray says. "You need a writer who's both objective and who can translate a person's humanity so that other people can feel it and identify with it."

Ray worked at the Littleton Independent for twenty years, eventually winding up as the paper's co-owner, editor and publisher; in 1984, three years after he sold the publication, he embarked on a teaching career at CSU that lasted until his retirement this past summer. Along the way, he developed a keen interest in obituaries that he traces to the late Houstoun Waring, who served as editor or editor emeritus at the Independent for over sixty years. "By his count, Houstoun wrote more than 13,000 obituaries, all of them about people from Littleton or with Littleton connections," Ray says. "He thought obituaries were important to the community and to families, and understood that it was important to recognize those lives. So I grew up with that philosophy."

He also developed an allergy for bad obits. "Obituaries are often the most stereotyped, least informative, least interesting writing in the paper," he points out. To show that this need not be the case, Ray wrote "Obits Should Capture Life," an influential 1998 article that first appeared in Grassroots Editor, a publication put out by the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. In subsequent addresses, he enumerated "Ten Keys to Writing Better Obits," such as "Raise the status of obit writing," "Talk to more sources," "Ask better questions," "Think of obituaries as profiles that could run as feature stories," "Give special treatment to ordinary people," and "Above all, be accurate." As he notes, "It's hard to imagine how upset people get when there's some factual error in the final summing up of someone's life."

One student who absorbed this information particularly well was Jim Sheeler, who numbers Ray among his favorite instructors. Ray admits that he doesn't recall identifying Sheeler as a future obit ace: "That would make a wonderful anecdote. He was a good student, a lively student, a student who was interested in people -- but I could not have predicted what happened."

The same is true of Sheeler himself. After graduating from CSU with a journalism sheepskin, he enrolled in a master's program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. But before he could deliver his thesis, he got a job at the Boulder Daily Camera. He wrote about business and other topics before becoming the paper's music critic. "I still love silly pop stuff like the Apples and the rest of the Elephant 6 bunch," he confesses. "I'll bet you anything I'm the only obit writer with every Superchunk album."

In 1996, Gregory Todd, the person who hired Sheeler at the Camera, launched a weekly called the Boulder Planet, and Sheeler soon signed up. "It was an opportunity to write for a small paper and do whatever I wanted to do," he remembers. Shortly thereafter, Sheeler came up with the idea of writing "feature obituaries that told the stories of people whose stories had never been told," and their success was subsequently duplicated at the Post, which had a business relationship with the Planet. Back in the old newspaper-war days, Sheeler notes, "the Rocky's company owned the Camera, and the Post was looking for a Boulder partnership, too. So Greg had the idea that we might be able to do the obituaries in the Post, and they were interested."

In the end, the Planet didn't survive, folding in early 2000 -- and, of course, the task of writing its obit fell to Sheeler. But his byline got prominent play in the Post, with his obituaries and other articles -- most notably profiles of local veterans -- stirring up so much interest among the readership that he was offered a full-time position that he graciously declined. "I think the Planet ruined me for the newsroom atmosphere, because it was really a bunch of friends, and I didn't have to deal with all the politics. Besides, I have a three-year-old, and being able to work at home and watch him grow up is pretty amazing. Writing all this stuff, you realize that you could be hit by a bus tomorrow, so you don't want to spend all your time in a newsroom when you could be hanging out with your family."

Values like these inform "A Colorado Life," which often involves as much detective work as many of the Post's full-scale investigations. A wonderful example was a 1999 piece about Johnny Richardson, whom Sheeler picked to memorialize simply because his official obituary was the shortest on the page one day: It read "Jonathan 'Johnny' Richardson of Denver, a shoe-shine worker, died August 13 in Denver. He was 74. No services were held. He was born June 24, 1925. His interest was listening to jazz. There are no immediate survivors." But as it turned out, there was much more to Richardson's tale than that, and by walking the dead man's path, Sheeler discovered plenty, including an old lover turned friend who had ordered a headstone as a way of ensuring that some record of Johnny would remain. Johnny had always wanted to write a book about his life, the friend said, but he never got around to it. Being immortalized by Sheeler was the next best thing.

When the Post and the Rocky inaugurated paid obits, some readers feared that Sheeler would be sent packing, but Post editor Glenn Guzzo offers reassuring words. "There's hardly a month that goes by when I don't get a very meaningful response to Jim's work," he says. "He's able to find people whose lives symbolize many other lives and seem to have great meaning to an audience beyond that person's family or friends. They stand for something that's important in the community and often say something about attributes and virtues that may affect behavior in the future by the people they've touched."

With luck, the same will be true of pieces by Claire Martin -- and she's off to a good start. Post management first told editorial sorts about the possible addition of a feature obituary position last summer, and for a tryout piece, Martin wrote a heartrending portrait of Mariah Kai Lin Gains, a four-year-old adoptee from China who died in her sleep of unknown causes. Afterward, Martin received a handwritten compliment from one person touched by her account: Governor Bill Owens. "I was totally cowed when I got it," Martin says. "I thought, 'Bill Owens reads obits?' But people do read them, even if they're not related to the person who died. There's something that draws people to them."

Martin is such a fan of Sheeler that she called him prior to applying for the obit writer's gig to say that if he was interested in the position, she'd back off. Sheeler gave her the go-ahead and seems entirely unconcerned about having competition for obituary subjects.

"There's definitely no lack of cool people to write about," he says. "Honestly, you could just close your eyes and point at any name on the obituary page, and chances are, you'd find a great story."

Green comes clean: Last week in this space, Denver Post columnist Chuck Green insisted that his sudden disappearance from the paper following his March 29 offering was no mystery: He'd simply decided to take some time off and would return on April 19. But as the previous issue was going to press, inside sources suggested that Green had actually been suspended after submitting an Easter Sunday column his editors spiked. Responding to this contention, Green explicitly denied the suspension rumor but added much more detail than he'd previously chosen to supply.

"It's true that the Easter column was pulled," Green conceded in one of two lengthy voice-mail messages. "It was not caused by a controversial topic or anything like that; it was more that the subject matter was deemed inappropriate for Easter Sunday. The column was about terrorism, and I talked about how terrorism and the global threat tends to be as a result of rogue agents who are not responsible directly to government control. It had rather a note of futility to it -- the tone was pretty pessimistic -- and when I called [Post city editor] Evan Dreyer to tell him I filed it, I told him he might find it rather depressing for Easter Sunday. And indeed they did. They thought it was kind of a bummer column for Easter, so that's why they pulled it."

Dreyer doesn't offer confirmation, choosing not to return oodles of messages on this topic. But Green accounted for his subsequent disappearance with the following: "I was just burned out, and I needed to recharge my batteries and reinvigorate myself. I told management that I thought I was at a stage of burnout and I just needed to get away, and they agreed. We talked about the direction of my column, and I think when I get back in the paper on the 19th, you will, over a period of time, detect a bit of a change. There'll be less of the essay style that you've seen in the past couple of years, and more back to the style I was writing in three or four years ago -- back to columns that have a bit more of a harder edge on specific issues or specific events."

Frankly, I have no idea what this last explanation means. But I can't wait to find out.

Watching the Rivers flow: The talk-show career of Reggie Rivers is winding down. On March 29, he announced that he'd be leaving his KHOW afternoon-drive program on April 26, prompting an outpouring of remorse and confusion from loyal listeners who wondered if he'd jumped or been shoved.

This isn't a silly question. Since September 11, Rivers has been under almost constant attack from self-styled patriots who regard his comments about privacy rights and the government's response to terrorism as un- American, as well as ardent supporters of Israel who have branded him misinformed at best and anti-Semitic at worst. Moreover, KHOW program director Elizabeth Estes-Cooper hasn't exactly showered him with praise ("Many Rivers to Cross," February 7).

"We've received some phone calls and letters about Reggie, and a lot of people would like us to make him shut up -- but I defend his right to have an opinion," she said at the time. "Still, radio is a business, and we have to be concerned that the product we're putting on the air is appealing to the largest group of people possible. And I'd be lying if I said I'm not concerned about that in his case."

Rivers, though, insists that he's leaving very much on his terms, and for personal reasons. "I really enjoy issues, and I enjoy a civil debate -- but too often radio just isn't a civil debate. It's people calling in with very personal attacks, screaming and yelling and being very unreasonable in a lot of ways." He adds, "I don't mean to be unfair to our listeners. I get a lot of very intelligent callers, and I know a lot of very intelligent people listen. But there's a percentage of our callers who are flat stupid, and they call a lot. They fit into this category of people who I'd never talk to in real life, but because of my job, I'm forced to talk to them. And I just got tired of it."

Estes-Cooper echoes Rivers's claim that he determined his destiny. "This is definitely not a situation where we went to him and said, 'Hey, we'll let you save face and resign.' And it frustrates me that I've gotten e-mails from people accusing me of pushing him out. These people who say they have such respect for Reggie are doing him a disservice by saying that, because this is a guy who would never go on the air and try to save face."

Even so, Estes-Cooper concedes that Rivers's ratings have remained at an unsatisfying level for far too long, and she hopes to find someone to fill the void who can appeal to a broader audience. "The show won't be syndicated," she confirms. "It'll be live and local, and I'm looking for a host who's pretty well-rounded -- who can talk about issues like Afghanistan or the Middle East, but who might also be able to do bits about the Academy Awards or things that are happening in Colorado. A lot of people say Reggie's show was very cerebral, very thick. It's not that I'm not interested in informing the public or that I want to dumb things down. But sometimes I feel like people who've been working all day don't want to deal with the finer issues of constitutional law."

That's not the kind of thing Rivers's defenders want to hear, and they'll be equally unhappy to learn that their requests for Estes-Cooper to replace him with someone who shares his mostly liberal stances are likely to go unheeded. The program director says she won't apply an ideological litmus test to replacement candidates, one of whom she hopes will be behind the microphone beginning on April 29. "I don't care what somebody's political bent is," she stresses. "If they can be interesting and compelling, they'll get the job."

As for Rivers, he'll continue writing columns for the Denver Post and contributing sports programming on Channel 4, and he wants to complete a second novel. He'll also provide commentary for at least three college football games next year on ABC and hopes that total will expand as the season grows closer. "The guy at ABC recommended that I talk to ESPN regional TV to see if I can get some Big 12 or Mountain West games, and he offered to call them on my behalf," he says.

Interpreting passing routes would clearly be less taxing than dealing with the folks who've been burning his ears since last year. "For a long time, I've been the lone voice in the media talking about certain things, so all the anger of the people who were opposed to them tended to funnel toward me. Now, I'm a stubborn person, and the more people attacked me, the more I'd dig in my heels and say, 'You're not going to intimidate me out of my beliefs.' But eventually I was just exhausted. I used to really enjoy going to work every day, and over the past four or five months, I haven't.

"I'm sure I'll miss the show. It's nice to have this forum for my opinions. But I know deep down the person I want to be, and this wasn't really fitting."

More of the Best: It's been two weeks since the appearance of Westword's annual Best of Denver issue, and many of you are probably still digesting it. After all, the mammoth edition contains a dumbfounding 666 blurbs, prompting insiders here to dub it "the Beast of Denver."

Even so, a handful of awards had to be sacrificed for production reasons. The following item -- "Best Michael Jordan Prediction," which singled out the Fan's Mitch Hyder and high school student Aaron Milner for praise -- was one of them. Here's the director's cut:

Colorado-based Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly is credited with being the first media type to report that retired basketballer Michael Jordan was planning a comeback. But Reilly was actually beaten on the story, not once but twice. In February 2001, Mitch Hyder, best known for providing sports updates on the Fan, traveled to Miami with the University of Denver basketball team to cover a contest against Florida A&M. Afterward, Charles Barkley, the onetime "Round Mound of Rebound" who's now an outspoken commentator on TNT, met with members of the team, then coached by his friend Marty Fletcher. During the session, Barkley told the squad that he and Jordan would be making a comeback with the Washington Wizards, a claim that proved half accurate (Barkley gave up his goal before the season started). Several DU players mentioned this bolt from the blue to Hyder, who shared their story on the Fan a full two weeks before the Sports Illustrated revelation. The magazine was also edged out by an article in the Lakewood High School Spectator that Milner had written based on Hyder's information. Add a couple new chapters to the life of Reilly.

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