The New York Times wants to end the dominance of dead white guys on its obituary pages, using newly developed software to spotlight more and more biographies of women and people of color.
In recent months, the newspaper has been quietly deploying a statistical demographic tool to help assure that at least 30 percent of its obituaries feature women, with ambitions to raise the obit percentage for racial and sexual- and gender-identity minorities as well.
Dubbed the “Obits Diversity Analysis Tool,” the new app was described recently on a tech website linked by the paper’s internal newsletter, Ahead of the Times, as “a dashboard that monitors the percentages of male, female and non-binary [i.e. gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine] obituary subjects on a daily and monthly basis.”
It was designed last year by in-house software engineers along with the paper’s audience-engagement team “to achieve a yearly 30% representation of women by March 2019,” according to the internal tech site. The authors recommend: “Now how about Part II—a tool that measures people of color in our obits, so we can see how we’re doing and make goals for improvements.”
Despite grumbling from a few Times insiders (mainly aging white males who asked not be further identified) that the new regime smacks of a “silly” quota system—which, in their eyes, might come dangerously close to substituting a number for news judgment—a spokesperson for the paper told The Daily Beast: “No, there isn't a quota or an app to enforce it, we are committed to diversifying our obits…and use data to help us keep track.”
The paper’s longtime obituaries editor, William McDonald, who oversees a staff of five fulltime obit reporters plus freelancers and writers from other sections of the Times, seconded that notion.
“We don’t have any numerical goals set, and no one has imposed any,” McDonald insisted, calling the 30-percent figure for women “aspirational, not mandatory.”
“We’re not using quotas, and we’re not letting demographics dictate our news judgments,” McDonald told The Daily Beast—never mind the impression that some folks have picked up from descriptions of the new tool. “I think it’s kind of a rough wish,” McDonald added. “It’s not an iron-clad, ‘if you don’t meet this goal, you’re fired’ thing.”
McDonald, who has been supervising the Times’ obituary coverage since 2006, said the process has become much more selective since the paper stopped running brief obits, as many as a dozen a day, in favor of full stories requiring more time and more space to produce and publish—reducing the number of daily obits to less than half a dozen.
McDonald pointed out that because the subjects of today’s obituaries generally accomplished their most notable work a generation ago or longer—in the 1970s and 1980s, when more and more women were starting to become prominent in business and other fields—the numbers continue to skew male.
A Times insider, however, told The Daily Beast: “Do I think the obit desk is thrilled with this? Probably not. On the whole, the desk is made up of older white guys, and there are times when someone will make kind of an off-the-cuff joke like, ‘We didn’t have enough dead women today.’”
McDonald acknowledged that gallows humor is not unknown to a group of wizened journalists who are daily confronted by the fact of the grim reaper.
Executive Editor Dean Baquet didn’t respond to text messages seeking comment on the paper’s obituary policies.
Because of the newspaper’s nearly unrivaled influence as an arbiter of societal, political and cultural clout, Times obituaries are a big deal—widely seen as conferring a high degree of importance on the lives of their subjects.
Recent Times obits—which remain majority-male—have included reports on Francine Shapiro, “the developer of eye-movement therapy”; Valentina Cortese,“a leading Italian film actress”; and Vivian Perlis, an “oral historian of American music.”
However, in the distant and not-so-distant past, much like many other American institutions, the paper’s obituaries overwhelmingly favored dead white guys to exclusion of other deserving subjects who happened to be female and/or members of minority groups.
“Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men,” reads the introduction to a Times obit feature titled “Overlooked,” which includes freshly-written appreciations of long-gone public figures whose accomplishments were ignored at the time of their deaths.
“Charlotte Bronte wrote ‘Jane Eyre’; Emily Warren Roebling oversaw construction of the Brooklyn Bridge when her husband fell ill; Madhubala transfixed Bollywood; Ida B. Wells campaigned against lynching. Yet all of their deaths went unremarked in our pages, until now,” the intro continues.
Among the other women receiving belated obits are Qiu Jin, “a feminist poet and revolutionary who became a martyr known as China’s ‘Joan of Arc’ ”; Mary Ewing Outerbridge, who “established what may have been America’s first tennis court in the 1870s”; iconic photographer Diane Arbus, “whose portraits have compelled or repelled generations of viewers”; and even famed writer Sylvia Plath, “a postwar poet unafraid to confront her own despair.”
“We’re trying to make up for lost time,” said a Times insider. “The people who have been left out include not only women and minority groups but all sorts of people who should have gotten obituaries but didn’t… It’s fair to say we are looking more carefully at how to be more inclusive, but if there’s a quota, nobody has told me about it.”
Yet the paper’s internal document describes the purpose of the Obits Diversity Analysis Tool as a “mission… to enhance the Obituaries desk’s efforts to reach gender parity.”
“The dashboard tracks the daily and monthly breakdowns of published obituaries, allowing editors to visualize the gender disparity at large as well as drill down to individual days,” the description continues. “In addition, a primary focus of the dashboard is to provide a rough estimate of the percentage of obituaries needed to reach 30% of obituaries featuring women…
“[W]e wanted to focus on a project that would be immediately useful to the company at large while also improving the bottom line of diversity inside the company as well as the wider public,” the description adds. “As more and more decisions are decided with the rubric of data, we wanted to provide a concrete foundation for uplifting those historically marginalized individuals that have been traditionally overlooked…
“In future improvements, we would like to implement a deeper analysis of obituary subjects through a more rigorous intersectional lens to shed more light on the race, religion, and other facets by combining Wikipedia biographies with internal APIs”—that is, tech jargon for an “application programming interface” that allows different apps to communicate with one another.
“The paper at large is conscious of being representative of all kinds of folks, so the obits are part of that,” McDonald said. “There are people from all walks of life who read our paper, and I can understand the desire to see people who who may look like them…
“Of course we’re conscious of the desire to be as inclusive as we can, within the bounds of news judgment… You’re conscious of it but you’re not necessarily letting it dictate who you write about or don’t write about. It’s not a science, obviously. It’s a matter of news judgment.”