Clyde Haberman on Writing an Obituary of the Boss

The New York Times announced that Arthur Ochs Sulzberger died on Saturday morning with a 7,741-word obituary by veteran Times writer Clyde Haberman. In an email to Poynter over the weekend, Mr. Haberman described the writing process.

Mr. Haberman began working on the obit in 1997 — the same year “Punch” Sulzberger stepped down as Chairman of the Times Company (he had retired from his role as Publisher in 1992).

“It is never simple to write about the boss,” Mr. Haberman told Poynter. “But Mr. Sulzberger made the assignment as easy as could be.”

Mr. Haberman interviewed his former boss several times for the obituary — one of the perks that comes from being the publisher of the Times. Although many obituaries are prepared in advance, it’s rare that the subject of the obituary is interviewed extensively over the course of fifteen years.

Mr. Haberman said that the obituary “was occasionally revised, though not significantly, as [Sulzberger’s] health declined in recent years and a greater sense of urgency developed.”

When the obituary ran on Saturday morning, “there were some minor tweaks that needed to be made–again, nothing major.”

“There were two main themes about his years as publisher that I thought should be the focus,” Mr. Haberman wrote. “His stewardship of the newspaper through another period of difficult finances and his decision in 1971 to publish the government history of the Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers. This was a courageous decision, and his finest moment.”

Joseph Lelyveld, then the executive editor of the Times, appointed Mr. Haberman for the task.

“I can’t be sure as to why he chose me, but I suspect it’s because I have been with The Times for a good long while, going on 36 years, and because he felt that I had a pretty good feel for the paper and what made it tick,” Mr. Haberman told Poynter.

Clyde Haberman on Writing an Obituary of the Boss