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'Obit' Explores a Unique Corner of the Journalism World

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When writer Bruce Weber was a little boy, he wanted to be a lot of things. He thought about being a ballplayer, a mathematician or maybe a musician. And like many of us, he grew up to do something else entirely. Bruce Weber grew up to be an obituary writer.

"There's only one bit of news in any obituary, and it's the same news every time."

Weber is one of the subjects of the documentary, Obit, which chronicles the work of The New York Times’ obituaries desk. He has since left his job at The Times, but had worked there for decades in a variety of positions.

Working on the obituaries desk was something that happened by chance. "It happened both on purpose and by accident," says Weber. 

"After a while I left the paper to write a book, a book about baseball. And when I came back to the paper, they had said they would hold a job for me, but they didn't say what it was," he says. Weber says The Times offered him a few choices: a job in the business department, a reporter position covering the Nets or a job writing obituaries.

Before starting his job as an obit writer, Weber says he thought it would be a bit morbid, writing about the recently dead. Still, he found the work consequential, and felt it was a "human service." 

"It's one of the only places in the newspaper where you get a chance to talk about how we got here from there, that there's an acknowledgement of history in a way that newspapers don't always acknowledge."

Obit writing is unlike many other types of journalism. A reporter has the opportunity to write in a more essayistic way, which is part of what attracted Weber to the job. It's also one of the only positions where the reporter never actually sees the events they're writing about. 

"Most of what goes on in a newspaper is you're writing about what just happened. One of the reasons why obituary writing is different from any other job on a daily newspaper, is that... there's only one bit of news in any obituary, and it's the same news every time," says Weber. 

Obituaries are also a place for reflection, not only on a person's accomplishments, but on how their life impacts the world we live in. "It's one of the only places in the newspaper where you get a chance to talk about how we got here from there, that there's an acknowledgement of history in a way that newspapers don't always acknowledge," he says. 

Weber wrote about his experience as an obituary writer in a piece for The Times, called Obit for the Obits. The film, Obit, had several screenings at the Milwaukee Film Festival and will have more screenings at festivals throughout the country. 

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Joy Powers joined WUWM January 2016 as producer for Lake Effect. Most recently, she was a director and producer for The Afternoon Shift, on WBEZ-fm, Chicago Public Radio.