PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY — Obit, an online magazine launched in 2007 to examine life, death, and the transitions in between, isn’t as dark as you might initially think. “What death can mean to the living and what living may have meant to the dead,” reads a tagline on its masthead. “Death is only half the story. Obit is about life…” reads another. Far more than just an outlet for obituaries–although it has many of those as well–the site is an eclectic collection of essays on change.
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There are, for instance, thoughtful essays about the experience of living through a loved one’s death, reviews of books that tackle the science of mortality, and a regular advice column that ruminates on tricky, mourning-related questions that Dear Abby probably wouldn’t touch. Anniversaries of an artist’s death serve as the occasion to explore a retrospective of her art, or to examine how her legacy has changed over time. For a quick read, there is also the “Mourning Roundup” blog, and a strangely addicting clickable interactive feature called “Died On the Same Day.”
“Obituaries” on Obit are imagined broadly; they may be on the death of an object, or of a subjective concept–like handwriting, or masculinity. Novelist Teddy Wayne was moved to write a piece in March 2011 when Volvo announced it would no longer sell station wagons in the US, titled “Remembering a Suburban Icon: The Volvo Station Wagon, Dead at 58.”
Managing editor Krishna Andavolou says a recurring theme, and one he and his colleagues are especially interested in, is the ever-evolving ritual of saying goodbye–to loved ones, and to life. “Boomers are approaching death in different ways,” Andavolu says, for instance. “They are seeing their parents die, and are contemplating the prospect of nonexistence in a way that other generations before them had not.” Technological advances have raised new questions never before asked by previous generations; a person’s “digital legacy” is now something worth considering.
Publications like The Atlantic and Slate are looking at a similar cultural space, says Andavolu. “We think of them as peer publications rather than competitors, necessarily, because no one’s actually going after this news topic in the way that we’re doing it.”
The Obit team is small–Andavolou is the only full-time staffer. Avery Rome, the editor in chief and creative force behind the site, works full time as an editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Obit depends on a stable of about five to ten regular freelancers for most of the site’s content, and they’ll read any pitches that come in over the transom. All contributors are paid, with the exception of the site’s occasional writing contests, where winners are rewarded with publication, among other prizes. Most of Obit’s freelancers have regular gigs and beats at established outlets, and the editors will turn to them when stories fall into their areas of expertise. For instance, when playwright and director Arthur Laurents died at ninety-three, David Patrick Stearns, who reviews theater and classical music as a staff writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer, got the assignment.
Obit does sell ad space, but it is supported by its founders and angel investors J. Robert and Barbara Hillier, who are also owners of Princeton Magazine and part owners of the Princeton, N.J. weekly newspaper Town Topics. The overhead is extremely small, and the staff all work remotely–there’s no physical office.
As for plans to expand in the future, Andavolu says that next they would like to focus more on local coverage. He says Obit already does a great job with coverage of celebrities’ death, and of people who are leaders in a particular field (the site has separate pages for obits in the fields of Arts & Media, Business & Politics, Sports, and Science). But everyone’s got a story to tell. “So what we would hope to do is find those stories on a more local level,” Andavolu says. “to connect how the stories of people’s lives in a community reflect the life of that community–the intersection of life stories.”
Obit Magazine Data
Name: Obit Magazine
City: Princeton, N.J.