Glenn Rifkin has an unusual job. He writes “advance” obituaries for the New York Times. That means he writes obits on people before they have died. Sometimes he even interviews them before their death.
Rifkin, who also writes books, spoke on Jan. 16 at “Pizza, Press & Politics,” a weekly speaker series hosted by the Northeastern University School of Journalism.
Rifkin said he fell into obit writing. Back in 2011, Ken Olsen, who founded Digital Equipment Corp., which at one time was one of the largest tech companies, was in failing health.
Rifkin knew a lot about Olsen because he spent seven years writing for Computer World and he had written a book about Olsen. “And I think if anybody writes his obituary, it should be me,” Rifkin said. So he contacted the Times.
The obituary was published after Olsen’s death, and a Times editor asked if he would like to write some more.
“I wrote dozens of these for over 10 years,” said Rifkin. “The advance obits are fascinating because, as opposed to thinking of them as this Grim Reaper moment, it is actually a really wonderful chance to write a profile of a notable person.” He added, “I love writing profiles of people.”
At the end of last year, he started to write obituaries for the Washington Post as well.
Rifkin was inspired to go into journalism by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, reporters from the Post, who broke the Watergate scandal back in the 1970s. Rifkin’s journalism career started as a business journalist, writing for Computer World.
During that time, Rifkin wrote his first book, about Olsen. An editor at the Times noticed the book and Rifkin was asked to contribute to their Sunday business section.
“The byline was worth gold,” said Rifkin, noting that the Times sets the standard for journalism. Rifkin covered the business news in Greater Boston area for several decades.
Rifkin recently wrote his 13th book, “Future Forward.” The book is about leadership lessons learned from Patrick Joseph McGovern, the CEO of the Computer World and International Data Group. He died in 2014. McGovern, said Rifkin, was a legend in the business, who ran a technology company and media empire for 50 years and circled the globe. The book will be published in China in Chinese in March, since McGovern led the first western publication to set up shop in China.