By Judith Sheppard
Judith Sheppard teaches journalism at Auburn University.
OBITUARIES AREN'T the only once-free "life-cycle" news that many newspapers now feature only for a charge. At most larger dailies, announcements of engagements, weddings and anniversaries are published on a paid-only basis. And newspapers of all sizes have begun rethinking birth announcements.
The reason? Like obituaries, these items have to be handled with extreme care: errors--or, God forbid, hoaxes--can be humiliating and hurtful, and human fickleness can lay waste to the most careful screening.
Though Indiana's Evansville Courier & Press will print wedding announcements, it has ceased putting in notice of engagements, given the possibilities for broken promises between the announcement and its expected conclusion. "We just cut them out," says Publisher Vince Vawter.
Births spawn a whole other field of possible land mines. "It's just a little touchy," says Allen Beermann, executive director of the Nebraska Press Association. "We've not had much trouble here yet, but there is talk of liability issues, since a lot of unmarried couples are having children. We're a little bit Midwestern and parochial, [but] it's changing."
Many newspapers can't get birth listings even if they want to print them, says Edward Seaton, editor in chief of the Manhattan Mercury in Kansas. Privacy and public safety concerns have made hospitals chary of handing over the names of new parents; they've also made parents less willing to advertise their new arrivals. Abductions, though rare, are a concern. In 1990, a Fort Myers, Florida, woman who for five weeks had read birth announcements in the local News Press killed a new mother and stole her baby.
As always, editors are looking for compromises. The Charlotte Observer and the Kansas City Star post free birth announcements in their zoned sections, which emphasize community news. And though long wedding, birth and engagement announcements must be bought in the Austin American-Statesman, shorter versions of these "news of record" are listed for free. "It's pretty important to keep a connection to the broad community," says Editor Rich Oppel. "Those things, those passages of life, are important to people."