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A Q&A with the New York Times Writer of Osama bin Laden’s Obituary

The centerpiece of the New York Times’ coverage on Osama bin Laden was the 4,000 word obituary that the paper had on file. One of the writers, Michael T. Kaufman, died in January 2010. Assistant editor Lauren Kirchner of the Columbia Journalism Review has a fascinating interview with the other obituary writer, Kate Zernike, about the process.

Apaprently the obituary had been written since November of 2001, as Zernike described, “when we thought Osama was going to be captured, and presumably killed, in a raid in the next couple of days. So as much as it was a project that waited around for ten years, it actually was written in some ways on a fairly tight deadline.”

Zernike said that sometime around 2003, she remembers speaking with an editor about how Bin Laden was “no longer this enormous figure, and so it would probably run one full page inside, but not the two full pages.”

She also describes how she found out her piece was going up:

I was exchanging emails with my editor about something completely different, and at the end of this email exchange, he said, “Turn on your television. Osama bin Laden is dead.” And I wrote back, “You know I wrote the obituary years ago…” and he wrote back, “No, but I’ll let them know.” By the time he wrote to them, they were already pulling it up. I gather that the weekend editor had said, “My God, do we have an obituary?”—and I think everyone was very surprised to find that we did.

Read the full interview, including the responses Zernicke has received thus far, at Columbia Journalism Review.

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