Thinking Tech

Expensive newspaper death notices: reinvention needed

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Death notices printed in newspapers cost several dollars. There's got to be a better way.

I stumbled across an interesting post decrying the expense and insensitivity of placing a death notice in the San Francisco Chronicle (Chron).credit: Wikipedia

Former journalist and media executive Alan Mutter was irate that a "crappy-looking" 182-word death notice would cost $450. He passed and donated the money to a scholarship fund.

As Mutter points out, expensive newspaper death notices take advantage of greiving families which are not in the mood to hunt for a bargain. So funeral homes typically itemize them in the much bigger pricetag for the funeral and all that goes with it.

Death notices moving online would seem a less expensive alternative to the dead tree version.

Indeed, death notices as we know them - muddy, agate type and basic details, all stacked on a newspaper page like boxes in a warehouse - would seem an anachronism in the online age.

That's exactly what Mutter says. He proposes that birth, wedding and funerals be referenced in print and point to a longer take online with various details about the deceased's life. That would take up less print space. Somehow, he comes to a conclusion that would be a win for all concerned  - the paper, advertisers, readers and the community.

I'm not sure how every constituency would make out and suspect that the newspapers would come out on the losing end. But to some extent, what Mutter proposes is already happening.

Legacy.com, founded in 1998,  hosts 7 millions obits and was initially backed by Tribune Co. which laid the roots for its collaboration with 700 newspapers.

"The Legacy.com Web site attracts more than 14 million visitors monthly. It now hosts obituaries and memorials for more than 60% of people who die in the United States," it claims on its about page.

A report "Transforming the Obituary Landscape" completed last Fall at the Northwestern's Medill School recommends an overhaul of Legacy.com to create a richer and more interactive experience. Obits and death notices are in a state of flux.

I certainly understand Mutter's disgust with the Chron, which he says did not respond to his request for comment. As one who took obits and death notices over the phone long ago, I always wondered that if you got a free write-up which is generally the case in community papers, why was the same information repeated in a paid  death notice.

A death notice informs acquaintances the particulars for calling hours and the funeral. And it serves as an semi-official record of one's demise should a death certificate be hard to access or locate. But at their core, they are paid advertisements and in big newspapers, only a few people get the free write-up.

But forget the idea that paid death notices are in decline. They remain a substantial source of revenue for cash-strapped newspapers. Media blog PoynterOnline reports they are still a strong revenue stream, but one that newspapers stand to lose:

"Lose the death notice business, and newspapers risk losing more than revenue -- they could lose a huge audience driver as well. And while the newspaper industry has been consumed by cost-cutting, bankruptcy proceedings and other challenges, competitive threats in the obituary/death notice space have been accumulating."

Indeed, there were 57 death notices across a full page and half of death notices in this morning's Boston Globe. It charges $50 for a photo and $8 a line (22 words max), which is less than the Chron for an average 40-line death notice.

Do the math: that's $320 x 57 for a $18,240 for today's notices - something the Globe would be loathe to give up. There's no frequency discount for obvious reasons.

Death notices are no different than any other ad in the newspaper except they provide paid content, which we all know has yet to become reality online. Death notices are just now catching up with everything else in newspapers which have long been under seige from online.

In my local paper, I read obits, but skip the death notices. Often, I know the people: as a group, they morphing from mostly parents of friends and inching into my contemporaries. I also read obits in the Globe and New York Times because a great write up of someone's life, insanely great or mundane, is interesting.

And like most words on a page, they seem in the queue to move more deeply into online from print.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure