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.
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.)