Death in the news

One thing I enjoy on weekends like this one when I make time for national and international newspapers is the journalist-written obituaries. Some are about people I know a little about, others not. Some lived more prominent, public lives than others. It is always welcome to see the varied paths that encompass life stories. You learn about life, its hardships and joys.

Obituaries appeared every day in my newspaper career. One time when no one died, we received complaints that we left out obits. That’s how fundamental readers saw obituaries to their newspaper.

When I started at the Mattoon Journal Gazette in 1983, Editor Ralph Closson handled the obituaries with great care. On Sundays, the task fell to weekend reporters (until we hired an obit clerk). Young reporters too often didn’t prioritize the importance of getting every detail correct in what in most cases would be the last thing published about each individual life. That led to calls on Monday about errors from grieving family and friends.

In those days, obituaries conformed to news standards set by the newspaper. That also led to challenging conversations with families who wanted to go outside the established boundary to do something like include names of surviving grandchildren.  “We will pay for it,” was a common line from families.

“We will do them all the same,” was the reply. The newspaper didn’t take their money nor their additions to the obits.

In time, that changed. “Custom” obits were allowed in which families could include what they wanted, and then pay for the obituary. The newspaper faxed paid obituaries to funeral homes to proof and approve. Initially, custom obits were affordable to most all people and generally close to the established norms. Gradually, the boundaries for custom obituaries expanded, as did the modest revenue stream.

One constant was the daily newspaper published obituaries from throughout its circulation region. Often there were also obituaries about former residents who had moved away. Most every individual had a published obituary upon their death. The obits were packaged together making it convenient for readers.

Conveniently packaged obituaries were one of multiple regular features that led a high percentage of the population to pay for the newspaper to be delivered to their porch, pay to pick it up at a grocery store, a newsstand or other retail outlet or to freely read the paper at work, at the YMCA, the library or similar places around town. That paying audience also attracted local, regional and national advertisers, who found value in their messages being next to news. This formula made newspapers both influential and profitable.

When obituaries become part of a conversation with me today, often it’s about the price. “Can you believe they wanted seven hundred dollars,” someone might ask? Yes, I believe it. In the years since custom obituaries become closer to the norm, newspapers adopted the attitude that the newspaper should get its slice of death-industry revenue. As overall newspaper revenue tightened, the interest in obituary revenue increased. The objective became to get every dollar. The obituary section became a sales tool. The idea that every deceased person be cited in a complete, organized daily package became secondary to getting every dollar. The standard for what would be published free shrunk.

Prominent or interesting people still may get one of the journalist-written obituaries like the ones I enjoy.  The majority of those appear in publications that still invest enough in news reporting to have staff available for those assignments. That represents a growing minority of publications. You see, prioritizing getting every dollar over getting every obituary cheapens the product. The fundamentals of the obituary as core to daily readership increasingly falls into the information abyss. As readers are marooned to navigate the ever-growing information field on their own, increasingly they opt not to pay the increasing prices for news sources offering less information.


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