Behind the Scenes of NYT’s ‘Overlooked’

Joining the New York Times obituary desk wasn’t an assignment of drudgery for Amy Padnani. It was a position she aspired to while working at the New York Times.

While some may have an impression of working on the “obit” desk as a bad assignment, it’s anything but for Padnani. She sought the spot so she could marry her reporting chops with storytelling. She sees it as a creative outlet, and uses multimedia in her work.

She was “dying to be here” in that news department, she said of her attitude before the move to obits. Pun not intended.

Randy Showstack, SPJ DC president, introduces Padnani.

Padnani spoke in Q&A tonight with Society of Professional Journalists D.C. Pro chapter board member Selma Khenissi at Mindspace DC.

Padnani spoke in depth about the project she helps oversee, called Overlooked. It brings attention to those who died in the past who didn’t get their proper Times due when they died.

While Padnani came up with the idea for this project, getting it off the ground took a lot of help, she told the audience. “Overlooked is definitely a team effort. I developed the idea for the project” but 150 writers “raised their hands to help out,” she added. “I couldn’t do it without them.”

Padnani.

It can take days, weeks or even months for the Times’ obituary department to hear about someone’s final demise. That’s partly because loved ones may not be ready to spread the word. That means that the journalists on the desk must “make the case why it took us so long to write about them,” Padnani said.

After she heard feedback from many readers that obits didn’t focus on enough women of color, the journalist approached her colleagues to discuss what to do. “Maybe we need to look a little harder” at “who we’re regarding as important,” she added.

Padnani decided to look back in the Times’ archives to see which notable people whose deaths weren’t reported: “It all just came together easily, really.”

Padnani, left, and on the right is Khenissi.

“Thank you for giving these people a voice” is what many told Padnani after the project began, she recalled now. “I didn’t know just how powerful it should be for readers.” However, others were angry, saying that this initiative “wouldn’t make up for” well over 100 years “of doing it the wrong way” at the newspaper.

As part of her research, she found that some 20 percent of the paper’s obits were on women. While she’s trying to get that figure up, it’s still not at parity.

“It gets really tricky in these cases, and you have to do your due diligence.” Although Padnani said this specifically about determining whether a deceased sports professional was the first in their field, it applies to a wide range of obits. She recalled another obituary where the person was found to be an inveterate liar — but not about being the “motorcycle queen” of her city

One oddity of obituaries is that some of the articles have the byline of someone who themselves is dead. “This may sound creepy, but sometimes the person who wrote the advance obititary dies” first, the journalist said. So a reporter who is very much alive will be assigned to update the story — called an “advance obituary” — before it runs. That journalist may get a “second” byline, too.

The paper currently has one writer dedicated to advance obits: Bob McFadden. He may take a week to write some of the articles. “With advance obits, you really take the time to do a deep dive and weave that tale into something bigger and more beautiful,” Padnani said.

Just today, McFadden published on obituary about public TV newsman Jim Lehrer. It’s here.

Tonight’s obit.

“This may sound creepy, but sometimes the person who wrote the advance obititary dies” first. Hence there can be shared bylines, when a very much alive reporter updates the story. “Often, that person will get a second byline,” Padnani said.

“Obit” — the film.

Thursday night’s event was co-sponosored by the Medill journalism program of Northwestern University’s “Medill on the Hill” program. It was held near Medill’s newsroom, which itself is a few floors up in the same building in downtown Washington as the Washington Post newsroom.

Overlooked is getting its own TV show, Padnani noted. And before she was in her current position, a movie called, naturally, “Obit,” focused on her department. SPJ DC attended this movie when it came out a few years ago and heard Q&A from an obituary writer in it.

The audience. There was also audience Q&A.

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