Another way to buy news coverage

Posted: October 19, 2008 in PR and News
Tags: , , , , , , ,

A while back, I posted about companies buying their way into the news.

Well, it turns out there’s a way regular folks like you and me can buy our way into the news too.

Die.

See, unless you’re famous, it turns out that you have to pay to have an obituary printed in the newspaper. (Technically, you pay for death notices; obituaries are news items written by the newspaper about newsworthy individuals. Practically, though, they appear in the same area of the newspaper and are less distinguishable from each other than are paid and free search results. (Wikipedia has a good history of obituaries here.)

In fact, according to NY Times Obituary Editor Bill McDonald (quoted in 2006 and cited in the wiki above), death notices are actually handled by the classified department, and compete for space with the news department’s obituaries. The news department gets half a page, more or less, depending on sales of death notices that day.

I’m sure many of you know this already. In fact, 3 out of 5 friends I’ve asked about it answered me sadly and said, “Of course,” barely able to conceal their surprise at my naivete. Then again, many of you may not know this. As I’ve said before, I am still amazed by how many people don’t know that the “sponsored links” search results on Google are paid for by advertisers!

But if  you’ve never been through the process, like my family went through these past few weeks, it may come as a shock to you.

And it’s not cheap. Prices range from tens of dollars per column inch to hundreds. And there aren’t even any guarantees the paper will have enough space to print the obit on the day you want it there. You have to pay for the online versions, too.

Of course, there are some places where you can get coverage for free. The smaller papers still do it. I guess that their desire to serve their community and their desperate need for relevant content outweigh the business opportunity.

But I wonder, in this day of declining circulation and profitability at traditional news organizations, if that same thinking shouldn’t prevail? Maybe, if these papers did a better job of doing the things they can do better than new media, they would stay relevant.

Now, I am not going to join the online battles about what newspapers do best (exemplified by Jeff Jarvis’s post last year) except in this one area: people still read their local newspapers to find out who died — even if their local paper is the NY Times.

The local broadcast or cable news won’t mention your mother-in-law’s death. CNN certainly won’t, unless she was a Kennedy, over 100, a rock star, or somone equally important like a celebutante (contrary to popular belief, an old description first used in 1939 by Walter Winchell in his On Broadway column).

Your RSS feed isn’t set up to bring you news of the deaths of people you didn’t know died. (Well, most people’s feeds aren’t, anyway!) It won’t show up on The Huffington Post, Digg, YouTube, AOL, MSN or MySpace. (Maybe Twitter will start an obituary service. Hey, you never know.)

So newspapers, listen up: you’ve lost the jobs section (even the NY Times Jobs section is a partnership with Monster). You’ve lost the real estate section. Fight for this one piece of journalistic real estate you can hold on to by providing a free service to those bereaving family members who are getting milked by every other aspect of the death industry. Maybe even give more than half a page to it. At the very least, you’ll increase your circ by everyone who had a relative who died in the last few days.

That said, can someone please explain to me where the names are inscribed of the multitudes who have shuffled off their mortal coil and disappeared from this earth with no public notice of their passing because their relatives were too poor to pay for the death notice or who had no relatives at all? (Because, contrary to what I naively thought, it sure ain’t the archives of the-former-paper-of-record, the NY Times.)

Comments
  1. josef katz says:

    Jeff,
    Two thoughts/questions.
    Do you think the papers charge so much because most people placing death notices are so used to paying big dollars for every other related service? Or is it that the papers have lost so much revenue from the real estate and jobs sections that they are looking for some additional revenue?

    I know blogging is not for everyone and it takes time to build a following but I can see an online business here. Low cost online obituaries. Yeah it is not the same as the papers and the grieving families would have to find you but with fewer people reading the paper if this was done in the right way it could work. Just think every one of the obituaries would live on indefinitely.

  2. jlsimons says:

    Thanks for the comments and questions, Josef. As to the second one first, there are already free online listings of death notices. Just Google them and you’ll even see sponsored links, so there must be enough money in them to pay for ads to generate them. I’m guessing AdSense traffic at the very least. I don’t know if the category is full yet, or even over-competitive, or if there’s room for more competition from an intrepid blogger.

    As to the first question, I think that papers have been looking for areas to monetize for some time now. And as they lose income, they’ll need to get even more aggressive about creating income wherever possible. I also think there’s probably some bandwagon joining going on. Papers that didn’t charge for death notices may be more likely to do it if they know others are. Finally, I think you’re dead on that the continued monetization of every aspect of the death industry would also encourage newspapers to go after their share, too.(It’s like a hospital, where you pay for every possible aspect of care. Come to think of it, that may not be that coincidental. At some cemeteries, for instance, you pay to open the ground, you pay to close it, you pay for the people who do the work, you pay for the equipment they need, you pay for any but the basic maintenance, and maybe even that, etc.)

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