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Saint Noochie?

Adam Bernstein

The Post offers a Sunday obit feature called A Local Life, which structurally can be more relaxed than the standard "news obit" that immediately tells the who, when, where, how and why of a story.

I have tried to find subjects who are unpredictable, in some ways elusive. Two of my favorites in recent memory were of a pool hustler and an ex-con-turned-mediator named Robert "Noochie" Kinlaw Jr.

As expected, an e-mail arrived from a reader critical about the Kinlaw story.

In this eulogy for a criminal "convicted on several charges over the years" the Washington Post reports that this "ex-offender ["ex"?] turned mediator" "tried to help end the killings on DC streets" but that this "admirable chapter" of his "troubled life" ended "after an apparent heart attack" (no doubt some overdose). This "34-year old ex-offender" "had a lot of respect" among his fellow crooks because of his "jail record" and because he was "intimately familiar with their codes and grievances." I knew crooks had plenty of "grievances" but never knew they had "codes." Honor among thieves according to the Washington Post, which also reports that this "ex-offender," who "tried" to do so many good deeds ("tried to end the killings," "tried to look out for his family," was "trying to raise his teenage son"), "worked part-time" "when not in jail" but that "paychecks from his employers either bounced or did not come at all," implying that "his employers" really were responsible for his many misdeeds (which he accomplished). Another criminal victim story from the Washington Post. They even suggest that "Noochie" did "the ministry of the church." How does "Saint Noochie" sound to you?

At the core of the writer's argument is that somehow The Post has "eulogized" Kinlaw, sanctified him. The obituary provided a brief account of Kinlaw's life outside of crime. But we have neither withheld the "bad" stuff, nor condemned him for not trying to change his life sooner. The local police commander said Kinlaw played a role -- not the defining role -- in getting a truce between two gangs -- not all the gangs.

By Adam Bernstein |  September 17, 2007; 11:15 AM ET  | Category:  Adam Bernstein
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Comments

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I appreciate these stories, which seem to derive their format from the obit-essays-bios that have appeared in some of the British papers (notably the Guardian and the Independent) for years, albeit in Britain they focus on more well-known notables. That said, I wonder if it would be asking too much to be a little more transparent in providing the age, date and perhaps cause of death of the subject. I don't think a reader should have to wade down 12 grafs to find that Bubba the welder-turned-bookbinder died of natural causes last Thursday at age 101. Maybe a little box off to the side, or possibly just standardize on an italicized boilerplate sentence at the end. If it's not in the lede, at least be consistent on where this info can be found. (Obviously I'm a journalist and I love features as much as hard news, and maybe I'm a prisoner of my expectations of what an obit should be, but I just find it distracting to spend half the piece trying to figure out the timeline.)

Posted by: AC in AC | September 18, 2007 1:05 PM

Agreed that somewhere high up, the basic information (who, when, why, where) should appear. This is very helpful to readers, which is why I did it in the story and in all others of the "Local Life" format.

It drives me nuts to see many papers ignore such basic info until far into the narrative. That somehow passes for "writerly."

Posted by: Adam | September 18, 2007 4:12 PM

British obituaries rarely give the cause of death because they see the obituary as being about the person's life, not their death. This is also why the British newspapers most famous for their obituaries actually obituarize more relative unknowns than their American counterparts do.

Some British obituary writers feel that mentioning the cause of death in the obituary is creepily morbid, especially if the person died of natural causes at a ripe old age. I think that's because the cause of death to them belongs in the news article announcing the death, not in the obituary.

Posted by: Charlene | September 21, 2007 1:40 AM

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