When the Toronto Star learned of Jack Layton's death earlier this week, it took only 20 minutes for the website to publish the news, and a 3,000-word obituary. While that may sound like a super-human feat, it was actually the result of careful advance preparation, writes Star public editor Kathy English in a column published today.

When the Toronto Star learned of Jack Layton's death earlier this week, it took only 20 minutes for the website to publish the news, and a 3,000-word obituary. While that may sound like a super-human feat, it was actually the result of careful advance preparation, writes Star public editor Kathy English in a column published today.

Toronto Star reporter Joanna Smith filed her first draft of Layton's obituary Saturday afternoon, writes English. It was the result of two weeks of research, and Smith also planned to write more throughout September. As it happened, Layton died two days later.

This is what's known as the "advance obit." Smith's editors had initially asked her to start pulling background material on Layton in the event that his perceived bad health led him to resign, or die. When the Ottawa bureau received some indication late last week that Layton's health was getting worse, Smith, who was on her way to cover a health conference, was asked to leave a brief background story — just in case.

As English says, that brief backgrounder turned into a full feature.

Here's what Smith told English when asked why she went over and above:

" 'As I got into researching it last week, there were so many important details about Jack and his life that I knew I wanted to include to do justice to him … I felt I owed it to him, to his party and to my colleagues and to our readers to have something solid prepared.' "

When she emailed the story to the editor, Smith included a note saying she would continue to work on the obit, and interview others who knew the man.

"Had fate not intervened, and his health allowed it," writes English, "I expect Smith might have even had the opportunity to interview Layton for his own obituary. That’s not as ghastly as it might seem and from what I knew of Layton, I could well imagine him cooperating enthusiastically on the final story of his life."

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