Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Circle of Life -- Newspaper Style

This post first appeared in Newspapers & Technology.

Back on the old sod, Mrs. Pete Monaghan came into the newsroom to pay for her husband's obituary.The kindly newsman told her that it was a dollar a word, and that he remembered Pete, and wasn't it too bad about him passing away.She thanked him for his kind words and bemoaned the fact that she only had $2. But she wrote out the obituary, "Pete died." The newsman said he thought old Pete deserved more and he'd give her three more words at no charge. Mrs. Pete Monaghan thanked him and rewrote the obituary: "Pete died. Boat for sale."That's one of my favorite stories and hints at how the business of newspapers has changed during my lifetime.On one weekly newspaper for which I worked early in my career, the publisher would post death notices and funeral times in the front window facing Main Street, making doubly sure no one missed an opportunity to say goodbye to a departed friend or foe.And everything in the obituary section (a.k.a "the Irish sports pages") was free, including the sign in the window. Charging for noticesNow, nearly every major newspaper in the country charges for death notices, obits and remembrances.When the practice first surfaced, critics made their concerns known.Nathaniel Blumberg, a former dean of journalism of the University of Montana, was among those critics."They're ghouls," he said, in a 1999 American Journalism Review article that discussed the industry's push to paid obituaries.Blumberg remembered looking up the definition of ghouls ("evil spirits that feed on the dead") before using it in this context. "The death of a citizen in a newspaper's circulation area is not only news, it's important news," he said at the time. Driving forcesTighter news holes and publishers' desire to reduce newsprint consumption have all been touted as drivers that have contributed to the emergence of the paid obit.But it isn't all economics.Newspapers also wanted to push the responsibility of getting obituary information accurate back into the hands of the family or the people who cared the most.It allowed family and friends to craft notices that reflected what they thought was important, relevant and appropriate instead of leaving it in the hands of a copy clerk or junior writer who had never laid eyes on the dearly departed.At the same time the trend toward paid obits began to blossom, the emergence of online death notices took solid root.This enabled newspapers to offer more robust interaction with their readers, providing them with such capabilities as search, guest books and almost unlimited space. More optionsBusiness propositions like Legacy.com, which provides users with format and form, developed successful models. The company, established in 1998 and based in Evanston, Ill., now boasts more than 500 newspapers as clients and partners."Visitors to the Web site can search by name for an obituary, read the comments, condolences and sentiments others have posted to the guest book, and post their own. Some 4,500 obituaries are posted each day which amounts to one of every two deaths in the United States ” and more than 600,000 guest book entries are posted each month," Legacy says about the service.Interestingly enough, Legacy.com.'s partners also sell a lot of flowers, gift baskets and condolence cards.Which brings us back (whether we like it or not) to the good widow Monaghan, advertising, and the "Irish sports pages."Some of you might think Pete's time on earth deserved more. But flowers bud, blossom and then fall: The old and ripe drop from the tree.

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