Dept. of Media

A Dead Beat The deceased ceasing to be appreciated over at the Post

Wyeth Not?: Bush congratulates the 2007 National Medal of Arts winner. Artist Andrew Wyeth does not get similar appreciation from the Post upon his death.
Photo by Michael Stewart, courtesy of National Endowment for the Arts

The word among Style writers at the Washington Post is that the recently installed newsroom management doesn’t appreciate their “Appreciations.”

For those who’ve never opened up the Style section the day after the death of a cultural eminence: “Appreciation” = Conventional Obituary - Boring Facts + Knowingness + Writing + Occasional Attitude. Recent recipients of Style’s Appreciation treatment include Helen Suzman, Harold Pinter, Mark Felt, and Bettie Page. The form has been around for at least 30 years.

On Jan. 15, Style writer Hank Stuever wrote an Appreciation of actor Ricardo Montalban. The second sentence was a life-sum-up job the likes of which would never survive in the paper’s traditional obit world: “[Montalban] was the multi-ethnic ‘other’-for-hire, a Mexican-born actor who arrived to do westerns or add calypso, meringue and matador moments to MGM studio fare, and then got by quite nicely on his ability to ‘do’ Asian or Native American or interstellar ultrahuman.”

Snark about “Corinthian leather” came later.

Buzz around the Style section is that the Montalban postmortem marks the last time that the paper runs an Appreciation. According to a Post source, Steve Reiss, a longtime Style editor, signaled in mid-January that the feature had been spiked at the request of Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli.

“The word came down…that we’re not doing them anymore,” says another source at Style.

Style sources report that veteran reporter Henry Allen was prepared to write an Appreciation of recently deceased painter Andrew Wyeth but was ordered not to proceed with the piece. Instead, Allen was handed an obit that the Post already had in its system, with the expectation, perhaps, that he’d update it and churn out a more conventional treatment. The result was a strange hybrid of obit and Appreciation.

In an interview last week, Reiss denied talk of a final decision on this Style franchise. “There’s some discussion about what the future of Appreciations should be,” he says. “That discussion is ongoing.” When asked if the reevaluation was his idea, Reiss responded, “I don’t want to talk about that. I’m uncomfortable in this conversation because we have an unresolved conversation on our end.”

Brauchli declined to comment on the matter, citing ongoing discussions.

Lighten up, fellows: Gitmo this is not.

The resolution to this highly sensitive matter will be something that all sides will be able to spin as win-win. Appreciations won’t go the way of their subjects, according to informed sources. Rather, they’ll have to meet a higher standard—only figures of colossal standing will get a turn in Style as well as in the obit section. Allen says he’s “persuaded” that the compromise will “retain the very best of the Post’s production of both obits and Appreciations.”

There’s a compelling logic behind the Post’s Appreciation investigation. Running an obit and an Appreciation means paying for two stories on the same thing. And in these days of general media collapsedom, duplication, redundancies, echoes, and overlap—they’re all totally, completely unsustainable, even in a well-funded newsroom such as the Post’s.

The trouble with the Post’s decision-making on dead icons lies in how it appears to be resolving the duplication. If the paper ends up snuffing out Appreciations in favor of news obituaries—or even attempting a merger of the forms—it will suffer a measurable loss of distinctiveness.

Though Post obits are uniformly well written and well reported, they are conventional newspaper fare, an element that you can find in any daily across the country. They start with a quick bio summary and cause of death, proceed into an (often compelling) recap of the person’s exploits, and end with details on birthplace, survivors, and other such details. Again, they are really well done.

Yet they can’t compete with an Appreciation. In my 20-years-plus as a Post subscriber, I have opened the front page of my Washington Post countless times to find a note at the bottom saying: So-and-so died: Obituary, B7; Appreciation, C1. Each time, I’ve gone to the Appreciation first.

That’s because I know that the writer who’s doing the Appreciation will say all the things that the obit writer cannot. Or, perhaps, abandon convention in favor of

something that’ll put a smile on my face. Witness the January 2005 Appreciation that Stuever wrote on Nixon White House secretary Rose Mary Woods. It was a mere 169 words and contained some essential facts about Woods’ life. But it resonates more for what wasn’t there than for what was there. Its success was confirmed by the Post’s ombudsman, who wrote the following in a subsequent column:

[T]he Style section last Tuesday featured an “Appreciation” of Rose Mary Woods, who died last week at the age of 87. She was the former secretary to President Richard Nixon who had claimed in 1973 to have inadvertently caused an 18 1/2-minute gap in a tape recording that would have been crucial to the Watergate investigation.* The Style story, by Hank Stuever, had a big chunk of white space in the middle. It was a spoof, but some readers didn’t get it and wanted either a new paper or the story restored online.

Now: Would Rose Mary Woods meet the gravitas standard that the Post appears ready to apply to future Appreciation candidates? Who knows. A better question is whether Arnold Neustadter would make the cut. He invented the Rolodex (along with the failed Swivodex and the failed Clipodex) and thus earned a spot on the front page of Style in April 1996. “Once the Rolodex stood for technology, modernity and Madison Avenue postwar gray-flannel-suit snappiness. It was one of the engineering touches loved by the managing classes, in the know and on the go, like Rolex watches.”

Everyone knows big changes are afoot in Style and its thematic cousins at the Post. A new co-managing editor, Raju Narisetti, was recently hired to oversee these fiefdoms—Style, Weekend, Washington Post Magazine, etc. (Narisetti did not respond to interview requests for this column.) There’s no telling what Style will look like after Narisetti is finished with it.

But why start out with Appreciations? Is that where new management wants to make a statement?

If so, here’s what’s at stake: Will the paper be smaller yet still distinctive, or smaller and just like every other paper?

Our Readers Say

Good piece, but how come you left out the Post obit editor--Adam Bernstein, one of the best writers on that rag.

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