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:

If an advance has gone according to plan, it has been researched, written, fact-checked, filed, edited and copy-edited, laid out on a page and sometimes even supplied with accompanying videos for online viewing, all well ahead of the game. Then, when the time comes, a writer or editor has only to drop in the when, the where and the how of the death, an act known in obituary parlance as “putting the top on the story.”

Religion News Service's Yonat Shimron noted in a public Facebook post Wednesday:

Billy Graham lived such a long life that many of the obits you see today were written by reporters who have long since moved on to other venues, as have I.

Shimron said her Graham obit — for The News and Observer of Raleigh, N.C., where she served as the religion writer from 1996 to 2011 — was produced about 15 years ago. Meanwhile, Shimron did a "live" spot news piece for RNS on the private funeral and weeklong events planned after Graham's death.

Peter Smith, meanwhile, had Graham stories in two papers today: the Louisville Courier-Journal (where he previously worked) and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (where he is the current religion writer):

"Both of those originated in advance coverage of his 2001 crusade in Louisville, for which we did a special section, then were revised for the eventual obit package," Smith said of the Courier-Journal pieces. "The Post-Gazette obit combined drafts by Ann Rodgers (the Pittsburgh paper's former religion writer) and me that were years in the making."

Former GetReligion contributor Mark Kellner was a part of the team that produced the Washington Times' years-in-the-marking Graham obit:

"When I arrived there in 1995, Larry Witham already had an obit done as Graham was in his 70s at that point," said GetReligion's Julia Duin, a former Washington Times religion editor. "He left in 2003. Mark Kellner updated the obit several years later. Both are listed on the tagline."

Berta Delgado, who was a Dallas Morning News religion writer when that newspaper had the best Godbeat team in the nation, is listed as a contributor on that paper's front-page obit.

Of course, there were also plenty of current religion writers on front pages today:

G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a freelance correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, said he wrote that paper's Graham obit in 2012:

Around 2004 or 2005, during my time with The Associated Press, I wrote a story on Graham's relationship with U.S. presidents as part of a package of stories the wire service prepared in case of his death. When news of Graham's passing came Wednesday, I Googled just in case any portion of that old story hit the wire all these years later. I don't think any of my version did, although AP did have a story along those lines.

An interesting — not necessarily in a heartwarming way — thing about many of the papers where former religion writers prepared obits years in advance is that those same papers no longer have religion writers.

For example, I'm not aware of a full-time religion writer with the L.A. Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today, the Louisville Courier-Journal or the Dallas Morning News. By all means, please correct me if I'm wrong.

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