When the owner of the Segway company dies while riding one of his own products, there's no way to escape the awkward irony within the tragedy. The media was torn when James Heselden, 62, the British miner-turned-entrepreneur died Sunday after riding one of his company's upright two-wheel scooters off a 30-foot cliff and into a river. The news — and inevitable jokes — immediately went viral on Twitter, but respectable media outlets had to be more circumspect. (Watch an AP report about Heselden's death.) Here's a sampling of their efforts to cover Heselden's death reverently, while getting in the occasional pointed remark:
1. Highlight similar death-by-own-product stories
The "sadly ironic" thing about Heselden's death, for AOL News' Steven Hoffer, is the "rapidly growing myth" that he invented the Segway, when in fact it was the brainchild of American Dean Kamen. Hoffer then perpetuates this myth, however, by listing five "fatal inventions" that ended up killing their creators, including Jack Daniels whiskey (whose creator, also named Jack Daniels, contracted a fatal infection while blitzed on his own brew) and a certain overcoat-parachute hybrid (whose inventor, Austrian tailor Franz Reicheit, leapt to his death from the Eiffel Tower while trying to prove it worked).
2. Tie Heselden's demise to the Segway's decline
The Wall Street Journal all but wrote the Segway's obituary, tracing the history of the "invention that was supposed to revolutionize the way we get around but that ended up going nowhere," from the "incredible hype" of its 2001 launch to Heselden's death. Notable stops along its decline: President George W. Bush's tumble from his father's Segway in 2003, a 2003 safety recall, the company's hitting financial rock bottom in 2004, and its acquisition by Heselden last December.
3. Try to avoid a disrespectful headline
Newspapers had a hard time titling their stories without repeating the word "Segway" (which can inadvertently suggest sarcasm, as in NPR's "Owner of Segway Dies on Segway"). The Chicago Tribune tried "Segway company owner rides one off cliff to his death," while Britain's The Sun opted for "Segway boss dies riding one off cliff." Other papers used the word "scooter" or "machine." The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, chose the understated if ambiguous "Segway company owner dies in fall."
4. Highlight a new, otherwise obscure study on the Segway's dangers
Several media outlets seized on a new study on the danger of riding Segways that was coincidentally released online in Annals of Emergency Medicine the same day Heselden died. Researchers at George Washington University looked at 44 Segway-related injuries from 2006 to 2008, and found that they were fairly serious (including collapsed lungs and fractured ribs) and getting more frequent.
5. Dig up an early, "prescient" warning about Segway's safety
Brian Caulfield at Forbes chose to focus on Apple chief Steve Jobs' reaction to the early prototype Segway (then called Ginger), as recalled in Steve Kemper's book Code Name Ginger. Jobs trashed the scooter's design, Kemper reported: "Its shape is not innovative, it's not elegant, it doesn't feel anthropomorphic." But Jobs' "most eerily prescient comment," Caulfield says, was that "if one stupid kid at Stanford hurt himself using a Ginger and then announced online that the machine sucked, the company was sunk."
6. Publicly grapple with the awkwardness
In an open Dear John letter to Segway, The Washington Post's Alexandra Petri admits that Heselden's death is "deeply uncomfortable for everyone involved." "We want to laugh," as if it were "a headline in The Onion." She concludes: "As Mel Brooks said, 'Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.' Replace that with 'Segway off a cliff,' and you should have some idea of the spate of jokes that are going to emerge from this. Who Segways off a cliff?"