Long ago, when people tended to AskJeeves instead of just Asking, and citing Wikipedia as a source got you a newsdesk hairdrier (so, circa 1994), being rota-ed to do the Births, Deaths and Marriages scan was an envied job.
Usually you were the early shift reporter, so you would potentially already have bagged at least one edition’s on-day splash from calls, and then you were able to settle back and peruse around a dozen pages of arrivals, departures, public notices and classifieds in the name of Human Interest stories.
Once you found a decent lead lurking in the BMDs, there was often a friendly vicar (M&Ds), obliging undertaker (Ds) or several postings from proud family and friends (Bs) to help you track down your quarry, aided by the phone book and directory enquiries. Failing that, an advertising colleague manning the classifieds ads booking might agree to look for the phone number of whomever had taken out the ad in the first place.
I landed any number of death knocks as a result of BMD trawls, and the Personal column always, even if it didn’t generate any leads, provided brilliant entertainment.
The Liverpool Echo death notices are legendary (one – genuinely – included the optimistic ‘you’ve come back from worse than this’ and I personally spotted one congratulaing the newly deceased on his son achieving a degree); in my first week on the paper I turned to the BMDs to find someone had announced the death of a loved one by publishing, with songwriting and musician credits and copyright, the lyrics to The Whole of the Moon. It took up an entire column.
The family announcements columns offered possibly the best and most human face of newspapers; death notices and weddings on the two weekly titles I worked at were published free because they were considered news. For those of a certain vintage, buying a freshly-printed Tenby Observer or Western Telegraph from the front counter, the front page glance would be followed by a scanning of the annoucements – the old ‘just checking I’m not dead’ joke was obligatory.
You have to pay for most announcements now, every penny counting of course, but maybe the reason they are so compelling is partly down to the fact that it’s where the audience/customer has an element of editorial control, simply by dint of paying to publish.
People get to write and style their own entries, use the grammar they chose, the exact quotes, photos and length of the piece and, unlike ad features, they are usually of interest to at least several people.
Anyway, the thing that prompted this self-indulgent muse was a question from a journalism student whoe dissertation includes a consideration of whether Twitter is essential for journalists.
I happened to say as part of my response that I thought maybe Twitter, Facebook and other social networks were the new BMDs – people take to them to announce major events in their lives, from livetweeting a birth to a Facebook status update announcing the death of a loved one – and in the same way those announcements, public notices and classifieds were seen as essential reading by everyone in a newsroom, Twitter should be as well.
Lives are recorded on YouTube videos and sometimes they go on to become stories in their own right; when Seesmic offered video threads I used to talk to a fellow poster, who lived in America and who had cystic fibrosis. Two days after our last contact, I learned of his death via Twitter. I’ve seen the passing anniversaries of his death being marked by tweets from others as well.
Lots of people post announcements of a very personal nature, from new jobs to lost jobs, engagements to separations, and they do it online, via blogs, forums, social networks, photo-sharing sites…
It’s a rich vein of information and you don’t even necessarily need to be an enthusiastic user of Twitter to exploit it.
Twitter Lists are brilliant for sources, as are the social ranking sites like Peer Index (I’m less sure about the ranking usefulness of such sites than I am their ability to list topic or geographic interestingness). Geographic Twitter searches, sites such as Monniter and Twibes are just some tools that can help.
If you didn’t read the BMDs and announcements it didn’t mean you were a poor journalist, just one who wasn’t exploiting your sources to the full potential. Same goes for social networks now – you are missing out, even if you don’t know it.