How Steve Jobs’ obit got published

August 28, 2008, 6:45 PM UTC

The first rule of publishing is that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. (A corollary favored at Time Magazine, where I labored for nearly three decades, is that all copy is guilty until proved otherwise.)

None of this excuses, but it does help explain, how Bloomberg News managed to publish an obituary on Wednesday afternoon of Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs, who is still quite alive.

Advance work on famous figures’ obits is nothing new, and given Jobs’ well-publicized brush with pancreatic cancer four years ago and recent concerns about his weight loss, it’s understandable that Bloomberg might choose this moment to update its piece on Jobs, although the version that got published contains no details about his health that weren’t already in the public record.

According to a Bloomberg spokesperson, however, it was a routine update of the kind regularly performed by the obit department.

The story — which ran under the byline Connie Guglielmo and the headline “Steve Jobs, Apple Co-Founder, Arbitrator of Cool Technology, XXXX” (the X’s to be filled in with his age at death) — was marked “HOLD FOR RELEASE — DO NOT USE — HOLD FOR RELEASE — DO NOT USE.”  But even that didn’t stop it from getting out. It should have been sent to Bloomberg’s internal wire, but instead it moved on the external wire that carried it to Bloomberg subscribers. The file was pulled within 30 seconds, according to Bloomberg PR, and the following retraction issued:

Story Referencing Apple Was Sent in Error by Bloomberg News

Aug. 27 (Bloomberg) — An incomplete story referencing Apple

Inc. was inadvertently published by Bloomberg News at 4:27 p.m.

New York time today. The item was never meant for publication and

has been retracted.

—Editor: Joe Winski, Cesca Antonelli

But another rule of publishing is that once the cat is out of the bag, you can rarely stuff her back in. And sure enough, a copy of the 17-page story, complete with notes and sources, fell into the hands of Gawker‘s Ryan Tate, who gleefully posted what Bloomberg had hoped would be quickly forgotten. You can read it here, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Although long obituaries have fallen out of favor at the major newsmagazines, it’s still standard practice to prepare obits of famous people well before they die. Perhaps the most famous practitioners of this macabre trade are the writers who do it for the New York Times. Alden Whitman, since deceased, was a master of the genre. Before penning their death notices, he often conducted long interviews with his subjects, who knew him as “the ghoul.”

Almost more interesting than Steve Jobs’ Bloomberg obituary is the list of “people to contact for comment” that is attached to it. These include, in addition to ex-colleagues such as Steve Wozniak, Jon Rubenstein and Mike Markkula, such marquee names as Al Gore, Bill Gates and Jerry Brown, as well as Jobs’ ex-girlfriend Heidi Roizen, who is described as “a venture capitalist who once dated Jobs [phone numbers redacted]. Heidi knows a lot of Silicon Valley insiders and may put us in touch with others.”

There’s a long history of untimely obits. Two of the most famous are Alfred Nobel’s (being characterized as the “merchant of death” is said to have inspired him to create the Nobel Prizes) and Mark Twain’s (“The reports of my death,” he told a reporter after it appeared, “are greatly exaggerated.”) An article on “premature obituaries” in Wikipedia lists 10 reasons for such occurrences — along with “brush with death” and “name confusion” is “pressing the wrong button.”

It happens. In April 2003, CNN inadvertently published draft tributes to several luminaries, including Fidel Castro, Dick Cheney, Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan. The last two have since departed, but the rest, like Steve Jobs, are still living.