William Lobdell

How major papers played Billy Graham's death on front pages: These bylines will be familiar to many

How major papers played Billy Graham's death on front pages: These bylines will be familiar to many

For those in Godbeat circles, many of the bylines splashed across today's front pages are extremely familiar.

I'm talking about names such as William Lobdell and Russell Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, Gayle White of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today.

All of those veteran religion writers — just to name a few — wrote their respective papers' major obituaries marking Wednesday's death of the Rev. Billy Graham at age 99.

But here's what might surprise many ordinary readers: None of them has worked for those papers in years. 

"I must have written and updated a whole suite of advance obit stories on Graham at least three times over 15 years," Grossman said. "I last polished up the package in 2013, in the week before I left the paper on a buyout. However, I stayed in touch with USAT editors (and) emailed them where fixes/changes might be needed over the years."

Welcome to the concept of the "prepared obit."

Here's what that means: News organizations put together obits in advance for certain prominent people, such as presidents, movie stars and — in the case of Graham — world-famous preachers. That way, they're prepared (at least somewhat) if the person dies 10 minutes before deadline.

A New York Times obituary writer explained it this way in a 2014 piece:

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Does the Godbeat sometimes fill you with despair? Well, you're far from alone

Does the Godbeat sometimes fill you with despair? Well, you're far from alone

My colleague Bobby Ross Jr. posted a piece last week keyed to a comment made by Laurie Goodstein, the veteran, award-winning New York Times religion reporter, who recently pulled down another big Religion Newswriters Association prize.

Here's what she said, as reported by Religion News Service, which was the source of Bobby's lede:

"There are days when I feel despair about the news and the place of religion in it,” said Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times, named first-place winner for excellence in religion reporting at the Religion Newswriters Association’s 66th annual awards ceremony over the [Aug. 27-30] weekend in Philadelphia.
“This work is getting harder,” added Goodstein, in what she said were unprepared remarks. She won in the large newspapers and wire services category for stories published in 2014.

Neither the RNS story or Bobby' post explained further what Goodstein meant. But Bobby did ask others to react to the question of on-the-beat despair. So here's my response.

On-the-job despair? Sure. Perhaps not of the order experienced by William Lobdell (younger readers should click here to understand this older-demographic God-beat reference), but despair nonetheless.

Frankly, I don't see how anyone -- religion journalist or not, person of faith or no faith -- cannot feel despair from time to time if they are at all aware of the vast world that exists outside themselves and they do not seriously numb their sensitivities via escapist self-indulgence (which, I hope it is clear, I am not endorsing).

It's a bloody mess out there, with much of the absurdity, depravity and pain brought to us in the name of religion.

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