The Death of the Free Obit
More and more newspapers are charging for obituaries. With profit margins so high, do they really have to?
By Judith Sheppard
Judith Sheppard teaches journalism at Auburn University.
NOBODY COULD ACCUSE Nathaniel Blumberg of being reticent. The Treasure State Review, an occasional publication the retired dean of the University of Montana journalism school writes and mails from Big Fork, blasts away fearlessly at the out-of-state chains that now own all but two dailies in his state. But he is particularly withering on one movement he believes those chains began encouraging about eight years ago: requiring payment to publish news of the dead.
"They're ghouls," he says, remembering looking up the definition of the term ("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." Newspapers, he says, should not be putting the interests of their shareholders "above the interests of the subscribers."
Policies Blumberg abhors in Montana have found their way into newspapers around the country. Once, obituaries were uniquely the products of newsrooms, summaries of ordinary lives and deaths that tested the accuracy of cub reporters and the patience of news clerks. Destined to be clipped and tucked into family Bibles or sent off to insurance offices to prove that a soul had passed on, they were often a newspaper's doff of the hat to a departed subscriber.
But now the friendly local obit writer is more likely to work in the classified ad department than in the newsroom. And it may be sales clerks, not news clerks, who write up the brief details of a person's life and death, charging by the line.
Many budget-conscious dailies say they no longer have the staff or space for complimentary obituaries of non-newsworthy folks. Despite the proportion of aging readers that has grown with the graying of the general population, many newsrooms treat the deaths of ordinary citizens as the kind of non-news to which the request for coverage gets a polite version of "you'll have to buy an ad."
Of course, great national papers such as the New York Times continue to craft mini-biographies of the famous or significant who are newly dead. The Los Angeles Times recently increased its full-time obit desk from one writer to three and is stocking up on advance obits.
The Dallas Morning News, Philadelphia Daily News, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune--all of these, and more, run staff-written reconstructions of the lives of their local prominent who have died. And almost all dailies still run wire stories on historic deaths, such as retired Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun's last month, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace's in September, crooner Frank Sinatra's in May.
But for mere mortals, 90 percent of the country's dailies will charge a fee to print news of their deaths, estimated an April 7, 1997, U.S. News & World Report story. "I think it's awful," says Gil Cranberg, a retired Des Moines Register editorial page editor who now teaches journalism at the University of Iowa. "I just don't understand why it's necessary to wring the last penny out of people. Obituaries are important information.... Do you charge for putting important information in the paper? That's absurd."
Bob Giles, executive director of the Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center and former editor and publisher of the Detroit News, agrees.
"Newspapers have a long, and I think wonderful, tradition of providing news about deaths and births and marriages, and to convert this into a so-called profit center, I think, is regrettable." He adds, "If you look at the profit margins of the big newspapers, you wonder how they can say they have to do this."
Few newspaper heads like to talk specifics about how much money obituaries--and shorter death notices--bring in when papers charge for them. It is clear ad space and fees vary widely from paper to paper: from 35 cents a word for information the newsroom wouldn't ordinarily include at Iowa's Cedar Rapids Gazette, to $2 a line after seven free lines at the Charlotte Observer, to $12 an inch at Colorado's Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.
Executives at the Des Moines Register say the full page or so of free obits the paper runs every day as a matter of principle could be bringing in "substantial" money, but they say they can't be more specific. Other publishers, such as Dominic Welch of the Salt Lake Tribune, say they are making money on obituaries. Clearly it's enough of a revenue producer to entice those watching the bottom line.
Executive directors of state press associations from New England to Nebraska say the move to charging is almost always an initiative prompted by the business side. "Without exception," says Ed Sterling, director of member services for the Texas Press Association, "decisions to begin charging come from owner-publishers, who at small newspapers often head the advertising and editorial departments."
Journalists and publishers alike at some larger papers say the sheer volume of deaths makes free obits, even free death notices, an unrealistic expectation. "There is no way on earth to provide universal coverage in an area this large, and, if you did, frankly, it wouldn't get read," says Myrna Oliver, an obit writer at the Los Angeles Times since 1990. Nor do those limitations apply to only the most heavily populated states. Kentucky Press Association Executive Director David Thompson says some newspapers cover so many counties that charging for obits and death notices "is just a way to control" the space required.
But Rich Oppel, editor of the Austin American-Statesman in Texas, is unsure at what point a paper's circulation grows too large to include some free notice of the dead. "There may be some point in the size of a paper when that's true," he says. "But I think it's more an excuse than anything else. Even the largest newspapers are looking at zoning now. Wouldn't this be one of the ways to put that to use?"
Even more worrisome to some observers than paid obits is what Edward Seaton, editor in chief of the Manhattan Mercury in Kansas, calls the newest trend: mixing free, staff-written obit copy with material requested by the family--without differentiation. It's an experiment in its early stages at his paper, Seaton says, but it's an approach the publisher of the Kansas City Star says has worked well at his publication for years.
Blumberg is among those who thinks mixing staff-written and family-produced copy is a bad idea. "It is the worst example of giving over control of news columns, this giving it to the survivors, the morticians," he says. "There was a time when it was impossible to either buy into or out of the news columns. Now, they're allowing such expressions as `gone to be with the Lord' in the news columns. When you don't distinguish between paid and unpaid, that is extremely objectionable."
A NUMBER OF PAPERS HAVE embraced this hybrid or one similar to it. In 1995, the Charlotte Observer set its new policy: Mourners would get a seven-line obit for a loved one, free of charge. Beyond that, they would pay $2 a line. And all obits would run in all editions. It was a compromise to make sure money kept no one out of the obit listings, but also to allow "families [to] be able to say exactly what they wish," wrote then-Publisher Rolfe Neill in an announcement to readers. "The printed record will be precisely what they choose."
The move has actually cut costs for those who would have otherwise had to pay, says death notice sales representative Debra McKinney, who notes the Observer runs an average 150 inches of notices a day. No one in the advertising department could estimate how many of those inches are paid. Before 1995, anything besides the usual factual information, with fairly strict limits on numbers of survivors and former activities, cost the family $4.50 a line in a separate notice. People seem to accept the new policy. "It just goes with the territory," McKinney says of the cost.
The Kansas City Star arrived at a similar solution. "Initially, we on the editorial side were resistant," says Publisher Arthur Brisbane, who was editor in 1995 when the new policy was instituted. "There was the sense that the tradition, the public service, was valuable. But because we were providing the space free, we were very much committed to extremely rigid rules, and...that was regularly generating friction. We were in the position of dictating what an obituary notice was, and hurting people's feelings, and coming across as doctrinaire."
Now families can pay to extend the obit and, "though they pay some money, they end up happy," says Brisbane. "If you see one that is short, you can infer it's a freebie. But there's no distinction in typeface. They're presented alphabetically."
So far, so good, says Manhattan Mercury Editor Seaton, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. "We've only been at this three or four months, and so far we've had nothing but compliments, except one nasty note," he says. Still, he adds cautiously, if the material families want included becomes more subjective, beyond adding survivors or activities--"if it starts interfering with the nature of our obituaries--obviously, we'll reexamine it."
Blumberg says the practice is offensive because it "allows the cover-up of suicides, of criminal negligence." He adds, "It also violates the traditional requirement of newspapers to list the cause of death." Making sure whatever appears in news columns is accurate and complete, "historically and traditionally the ethical function of editors," is being circumvented by this practice, he says.
Readers are often confused by the choices. Many editors tell tales of irate mourners wanting to know why the obit next to their loved one's was longer and more detailed; newspapers don't always make clear who wrote what.
For some papers, though, separating the newspaper's version and the family's is important. At the Des Moines Register and the Portland Press Herald in Maine, paid death notices are set in agate, so there's no confusion between news and sentiment.
"We've made a conscious effort to continue offering obits for their news value. We're quite stringent in exercising our control over that obit," says Curt Hazlett, the Portland paper's managing editor, adding wryly: "It's amazing how many war heroes there were."
Kent Ford, editor of the Missouri Press Association, says large newspapers that begin charging for expanded obits or death notices need to set restrictions on what they'll allow in the paper. "Without them, people will take advantage," he says. "People will fill a page with how wonderful and God-fearing Uncle Ralph was, if you let them."
If notices of deaths must be sold, the price should be reasonable for a particular community, warns George Harmon, chairman of the newspaper studies program at Northwestern University. Otherwise, charging for them may in the long run cost newspapers one of their oft-repeated goals: diversity of content.
"It could mean exclusion of meaningful information about individuals or groups of individuals," says Bob Steele, director of ethics programs at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "It could raise issues about fairness and access of individuals to the pages of the paper and to a way in which to bring their issues and their news to the front....
"When a newspaper charges for certain elements of access, it's not necessarily wrong, but there are potential consequences," Steele adds. "Citizens of the community should be able to see themselves, in the broader sense, in the pages of the newspaper."
Historians such as Janice Hume, an assistant professor of journalism at Kansas State University, say newspaper obituaries are rich texts for understanding our own past and present, and where we all fit in a social context. Until the postwar turn toward equal rights, the deaths of most blacks were rarely noted outside the ethnic press; women's obituaries dwelt almost solely on their relationships to prominent men and the numbers of their children.
Even the way lives of men were routinely described in obituary columns tells us what the culture deemed admirable, Hume says. Obituaries in the 1850s lavishly eulogized the dead for their greatness of heart and character; in the 1920s, the men deemed obit-worthy had often dropped dead at their desks of heart attacks, brought on in the drive for wealth and power.
"An obituary distills the essence of a citizen's life, and it reflects what society values and wants to remember about that person's history," Hume wrote in a dissertation prospectus for the University of Missouri. "Indeed, a newspaper obituary has a commemorative role in representing and legitimizing American ideals."
Says Harmon: "Obits are an opportunity. This is a cheap way to get interesting stuff in the newspaper, and stuff that readers appreciate."
Industry consultants say newspaper executives should think hard before charging for obit copy. "If you get relatively small dollars but you alienate a portion of your constituency, isn't that a little shortsighted?" asks Robert J. Broadwater of Veronis, Suhler & Associates Inc. While most large papers advised by the firm of Currow & de Montmollin Inc. "seem to have gone for [paid obituaries] a number of years ago, I personally think it's a terrible mistake," says Phil de Montmollin. "It's one of the great features and benefits to our readers. I know it's pretty expensive space, but I'd say let me come in and save you a lot more money than that" elsewhere.
Jim Nicholson, who's been writing obituaries on ordinary citizens for the Philadelphia Daily News since 1982, is more scathing. "It's a desperation move," he says. "For the short-term gain you lose so much goodwill. What you lose is really incalculable.... It's a mercenary act, like selling parts of your widget factory. You'll consume yourself. It's only a matter of time."
BUT MANY SAY MONEY isn't the chief consideration in the paid-versus-free obit debate. Some editors and publishers say the move to paid obits is a response to unsolvable problems and demands from mourners and funeral homes. ###
Sandra K. George, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, says she considered but ultimately rejected going to paid notices while publisher of the Hillsdale Daily in Michigan. "I was tired of dealing with the clashes between what our editorial policy would put in for consistency['s] sake and what funeral directors wanted in," including lengthy lists of hobbies and surviving relatives.
Charles McCollum, editor of the Herald Journal in Logan, Utah, calls his paid obits "the greatest thing in the history of newspapering...for the convenience of just being able to carry on business." He isn't kidding. "The wonderful thing about paid obits is, you run them as is. You don't have to fight with dead people's relatives day after day after day."
A news clerk cleans up the copy and the Herald Journal charges $4 an inch, but the money isn't the point, McCollum says. "The hassle over what people could say had just become unbearable," he says of the period that led to the policy change about 10 years ago. "Having [obits] paid for puts the whole responsibility in the family's hands." The paper publishes no free death notices, he says.
Length and hyperbole aren't the only considerations. Publishing news of the dead has always been fraught with ethical and practical issues, and these days there are new ones: Should gay partners be included in the survivors' list, or only law-sanctioned relations? When the bereaved are blended families, who gets a mention? What should a newspaper do if a family requests an obit for a fetus, as a Eugene, Oregon, family asked of the Register-Guard when a pregnancy involving twins ended at 16 weeks? What if the deceased was a victim of suicide or, in a conservative area, of AIDS? Should cause of death be mentioned? Journalists say they try to be sensitive to each case, and the answers are as varied as the political climate of each community. It can be a tough call.
Kevin Ashby, president of the Utah Press Association, says the twice-weekly newspaper he publishes in Price, Utah--the Sun Advocate--has been asked several times to republish an obit with additional information because, for instance, a "stepmother intentionally left out a daughter or estranged stepson."
Though they still print brief free death notices, Salt Lake City's dailies, the Tribune and the Deseret News, switched to paid obits in the mid-'70s and have never looked back, says Tribune Publisher Welch. "It was a great decision," he says. "We decided we were choosing who deserved a lot of comment, and here, everybody has a lot of church-related things to mention.... We were getting such long obits, we decided, no, we'll start charging for them, and you can write them the way you want them."
Complaints about the cost aren't rare: Even Welch and advertising director Ed McCaffrey admit that, at $4 a line, the tributes get costly. Mourners come to a cashier's cage in the lobby, where photos can be scanned in and an exact price given, McCaffrey says. The printed tributes sometimes feature two photos, one recent, one taken when the subject was in his prime. For an added fee, a small flag marks a veteran's passing.
"He worked as a plasterer and a stonemason," reads a recent obit in the Tribune. "He left his trademark all over the country, so just look around and you will see his work." Another notes, "He was known as the Candyman among the neighborhood kids."
Some manage to be both heartfelt and awkward. "What Grandpa liked to do most was spread his love," read one tribute to a Mormon missionary. It ended, "In lieu of flowers make a contribution to the Womans [sic] Abuse Center."
Some journalists say the reader-written obits are more interesting than those their own, more tightly regulated staffs can produce. Pam Johnson, executive editor of the Arizona Republic and president of the Associated Press Managing Editors, finds "some of the best reading in the paper are these paid obits," running alongside the complimentary ones. "I find it makes our obit pages more interesting."
McCollum echoes that sentiment, reading aloud from a paid obit that ran in Logan's Herald Journal December 9: "Her enthusiasm for life was apparent to all who knew her. She loved to fish, to golf, and, for reasons no one can understand, she was the world's biggest Atlanta Braves fan."
Observes McCollum: "They're fun. You'd never get this little slice of local life in an obit we ran."
That's the kind of life readers of weekly newspapers often expect. "These are our friends and our neighbors dying. To us, it's news," says Lockwood Phillips, president of the National Newspaper Association.
Even so, Phillips says, his family's four weeklies in North Carolina--the Carteret County News-Times, Tideland News, Havelock Times and Topsail Voice--have begun offering families the option of a flat $25 fee to include information the paper normally doesn't print, like the names of grandchildren and cousins.
"It's difficult to declare what's important and what's not," he says. The mixed info is an effort "to be sensitive to the family's needs and expectations, and it's a balancing act."
But some dailies have seen the future and decided to return to the past. Vermont's Brattleboro Reformer tried paid obits for less than six months in 1995, but retreated after being stung by community outrage, says Assistant Managing Editor Linda DuCharme. The newsroom hated the paid policy, she says, "but the business people felt other papers are doing it, and we could, too.... They were big enough to rescind the policy" after a "barrage" of letters. Today, free obits range from 3 inches to 12. The paper charges only for the post-funeral write-ups popular in the area.
Perhaps most dramatic was the reversal at Bremerton's Sun in Washington in 1994. After a few months of what Publisher Mike Phillips calls "adverse and sustained" outcry over instituting paid obits, the paper not only went back to free ones, it offered refunds to those who had paid.
Phillips, then the Sun editor, recalls the paid obit move as an attempt to hike revenue in the newsprint crunch. "We weren't thinking in terms of community service, but the community reminded us that we're expected to do community service," he says.
Over the objections of others at the Sun, Phillips pushed through the refund offer, which "a few dozen" residents accepted. "My point was that abandoning a bad policy wouldn't clear up the ill will that had been created. It would take something more drastic," he says.
Will the Sun ever try to charge for obits again, perhaps if its circulation grows dramatically?
"I hope not," Phillips says. "I recently helped do some case studies of successful circulation builders for NNA. One thing we found is that successful big newspapers hang onto their roots and maintain a human relationship with their community, and don't let that distance creep into the relationship which is so common with larger papers. Obituaries are a symbol of the newspaper's commitment to the community."