The Los Angeles Times has gone without a designated obituary editor for some time now, at least since the buyouts that cut deep into the staff last year around this time. There hasn't been even a dedicated obits writer since Jill Leovy stopped doing them in July. (Her last obit: longtime LA sports columnist Melvin Durslag.) Now a former obits editor, Steve Marble, is coming back to be the go-to guy. He won't have any writers reporting to him, unlike the last time he pinch-hit on what was then a formal Obituary desk with its own place on the Times' staff roster.
Going it alone on obits is big change in philosophy from just a few years ago when the editors realized readers love obits and kept a writing staff that ran at least three or four deep. Everyone in that last full class of obituary writers and editors — Elaine Woo, Steve Chawkins, David Colker, Claire Noland, Dennis McLellan — are gone from the paper. Woo was quickly signed up by the Washington Post to write obits from her home here and did a nice job with the Tom Hayden obit.
The Times has gotten by with a heavy dose of Associated Press obituaries, even of prominent Angelenos that would have rated significant staff obits in the recent past, such as Hollywood powerhouse Norman Brokaw, legendary pilot Bob Hoover, singer Bobby Vee and LA Philharmonic violin master Barry Socher. Other prominent deaths have just been skipped — chef Michel Richard and UCLA professor Don Nakanishi come to mind. And in selected cases, Times staff writers on other beats have been tapped to write timely news obits of people they covered or knew. For example, the Times is running an obit tonight of its own longtime music freelancer, Don Waller, written by pop music critic Randall Roberts. Waller was 65 and died of lung cancer. I had an item in this morning's LA Observed Notes.
Marble will be empowered to tap reporters around the paper as needed, and will write obits himself. Here's the memo from managing editor Larry Ingrassia:
To: The Staff
From: Larry Ingrassia, Managing Editor
I am pleased to announce that Steve Marble has been appointed obituary editor.
Steve has held various editing jobs in the newsroom, for years in metro and most recently on the national/foreign desk, giving him the breadth and depth of knowledge to oversee an important coverage area for The Times.
In this role, Steve will have the lead responsibility for helping to identify obituaries that are of the highest interest to our readers – notable Californians in culture and the arts, business, local politics and government, or people with a strong connection to California who have made an important contribution in some way. And selectively, we will continue to write obituaries of luminaries who have left a significant mark in areas, like entertainment, that have special resonance to Angelenos.
Steve will write some obituaries himself, but he will assign most obits to be written by various desks, drawing on the expertise of writers in those departments. He will work with desks to make sure we have advance obituaries on those especially important figures for whom we want to be able to quickly post a thoroughly reported and well-written obit.
He will also need each desk to help make sure we don’t overlook obituaries we should be doing, on evenings and weekends as well as during the day. That’s already happening now, to a large extent, but ideally each major desk should have a person who monitors news and takes the initiative to assign obituaries as soon as we learn of a notable person’s death. Steve will be meeting with all the desks in the next couple of weeks, to help set up a process for this to happen smoothly.
Obituaries are a signature element of our news report, and it’s great to have someone of Steve’s experience directing this coverage.
Readers without newspaper experience may not realize that some of the obits they see were written years earlier by reporters who are no longer with the paper. Last week's obit of heart transplant pioneer Denton Cooley carried the byline of Thomas H. Maugh II, the longtime health and science reporter who retired in 2011. McLellan's byline is on the obit this month of actor Robert Vaughn. Former pop music writer Richard Cromelin, whose last non-obit byline was in 2011, has the byline on the Leonard Cohen obit, and the October obit of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand has the byline of David Lamb, a retired foreign correspondent who died in June. So it happens.