journalistic shorthand for the three circumstances under which ordinary
people's names would appear in the newspaper: when they're born, when
they marry, when they die.
the years, those opportunities to have one's name published have eroded.
Space and cultural considerations have caused the decline of birth and
wedding announcements in many U.S. newspapers, leaving the obituary
as the last resort for public acknowledgement of an ordinary life. Space
and revenue concerns led newspapers to run fewer, shorter obituaries,
or shift them from a news item to a classified advertising revenue category.
the Readership Institute's Impact study of readership shows that obituaries
- along with community announcements and stories about ordinary
people - have the highest potential of all news items to grow readership.
In other words, if newspapers can do a "better" job in presenting
this kind of news, they will see positive, overall readership results.
what does "better" mean? And why do these commonplace items
have so much potential?
research shows that there is a strong reader appetite for news that
is intensely local and personally relevant, such as obituaries. While
it is true that in recent years, newspapers have focused increasingly
on "local news," there is still a large, unrealized potential
for this type of people-centered news.
chronicle "life events" of the community, the circumstances
that bind a community together. At their best, obituaries are engaging
stories about ordinary people's lives; they enrich the community's sense
of itself. This type of coverage frequently is missing or treated perfunctorily
in contemporary newspapers, which have turned their focus over a period
of decades to more coverage of institutions.
A review of the 100 newspapers in the Impact study, plus a number of
newspapers not in the study, reveals a wide range of policies and practices
on obituaries. The nomenclature varies from paper to paper. "Obituary"
at some newspapers indicates the free, newsroom-produced notice of a
life that has passed and "death notice" is the paid advertisement
written by the family or the funeral home. At other newspapers the definitions
are reversed. For clarity's sake, we refer to these two basic types
of obituary as "news obituary" and "paid obituary."
range of policies:
few newspapers - both large and small - maintain a policy
of writing news obituaries for every person with any connection to
the circulation area, however tenuous. Some of these newspapers do
not even offer paid obituaries.
few newspapers have transferred the obituary function entirely to
the classified department where paid obituaries are sold, and no news
obituaries are written at all.
newspapers provide both news obituaries and paid obituaries with the
length and detail in the news obituary varying from the barest essential
facts (name, age, date of death, name of funeral home handling the
services) to expansive chronicles of every life. Some of these papers
publish a news obituary for anyone whose family submits the information;
others are selective, with the news staff deciding which to publish
and which to discard.
Given the power of obituaries to grow overall readership, what practices
and approaches are associated with higher reader satisfaction?
Readership Institute (RI) analyzed the 10 newspapers in the Impact study
that had the highest reader satisfaction scores for their obituary coverage
and compared them to the 10 that had the lowest satisfaction scores.
top 10 share a number of common characteristics. Whether the obituaries
are free or paid is not one of the commonalities. While this issue is
of acute concern to newspapers internally, it is transparent to readers.
What readers care about is getting this very important news.
top 10 newspapers range from about 11,000 to 31,400 average daily circulation.
(As mentioned below, RI also found examples of metropolitan newspapers
outside the Impact sample that do many of the key things that Impact's
top 10 smaller newspapers do.) A few provide news obituaries of some
length, including work history, social and civic affiliations, and extensive
survivor lists. Many offer only the most basic news data, relying on
paid obituaries to provide the lengthy exposition.
all of the top 10 share the following practices:
upfront placement of obituaries in news space. Most of the papers
publish their news and paid obituaries (as well as separate funeral
listings in some newspapers) on A-2 or A-3. Others anchor them on
a jump page in the A section.
Standard body type. All run their news and paid obituaries in the
same type face and size as used in other news stories. Some mingle
news and paid together, making no distinction in print between the
Pictures. All offer the opportunity to include a photograph of the
deceased, sometimes in a news obituary, sometimes in a paid obituary.
The newsroom handles obituaries. At all of these newspapers, both
news obituaries and paid obituaries are produced by a newsroom employee
- reporter or clerk - not a classified ad representative.
Some form of free obituary. Even those newspapers that have shifted
the function of the in-depth obituary to a paid obits feature still
offer a free basic news obituary so every passing life is noted, even
if the family cannot afford or chooses not to buy an obituary. (At
least two in the top 10 will run the lengthy, family-written "paid"
obit for free if the funeral home tells the editor the family cannot
afford to pay for it. "Nobody gets left out," one editor
obituaries. Regardless of their policy on paid or free obituaries,
all of the top 10 write longer "story" obituaries on the
passing of prominent people. These often appear on Page 1.
addition to the practices that all 10 engage in, many of them also do
Daily schedule of funerals and visitations. Many run funeral services
subsequent to the publication of the obituary for those in which there
is a lapse between the date of the obituary and the funeral service.
Some run the funeral service information only on the day of the service;
others repeat the information every day between the publication of
the obituary and the date of the service. One newspaper uses its audiotext
system for repeat information on funeral services. It provides a free
audiotext category for each local funeral home, whose staffs record
their own services information.
Web site listing. All include obituaries on their Web sites. Most
maintain them in their Web site archives indefinitely.
regional breakdown. Many of the newspapers that circulate in a wide
or multi-county area give a detailed regional breakdown of obituaries,
instead of a straight alphabetical listing, so readers can spot at
a glance the deaths of people who lived near them.
The key to higher reader satisfaction seems to be that these newspapers
recognize the importance of obituaries by their placement, type size,
detail and use of photographs. The fact of being paid or free is transparent
and irrelevant to the reader, who gets detailed exposition on the deceased
and actionable information in the dates, times and places of services.
The reader gets the opportunity to share the knowledge of lives lived
with the rest of the community.
contrast, newspapers that scored lowest in satisfaction with obituaries
did not place much emphasis on content, design or ease of use. They
shared the following common characteristics:
type. In these papers the typeface was small, such as that used in
organization only. No regional breakdowns to aid readers in finding
people who lived near them.
photos. Photos were absent in both news obituaries and paid obituaries.
information. Most of these papers published only the most basic information
related to the death: name, age, place of death and information about
The most expansive news obituaries appear in both small papers such
as The Gleaner
in Henderson, KY and the Greeneville (TN) Sun
(both Impact newspapers) and big papers, such as The Oregonian
in Portland (not an Impact newspaper).
(circulation 11,000), all obituaries are free news
obituaries for anybody who has a local connection, no matter how tenuous.
"I can't remember every saying no to anyone," said managing
editor David Dixon.
Jones, editor of the Greeneville Sun
(circulation 15,000), says
sometimes he feels like a dinosaur, but "the viewpoint the Sun
has held over the years is that obituaries are important news stories.
...I feel very strongly about this. Obituaries are a way to build
a bond with our readers. I don't want to be in the position of making
a commercial venture out of their deaths.
like to have a lot of biographical detail, usually more than the funeral
homes get on the forms," Jones said. He encourages families to
add detail and to provide a photograph of the deceased. The Sun
publishes the names of all direct survivors through great-grandchildren.
anchors its obituaries on the first of its two jump pages, where
they have priority over other news. "There is no news story in
our newspaper that is as important to our readers as the obituaries.
If we have to leave out AP stuff or delay one of our local stories to
make room for the obits, that's OK," Jones said.
non-Impact study newspapers, The Oregonian
(351,000 daily, 430,000
Sunday) stands out. Dan Hortsch, Oregonian
ombudsman, said his
newspaper writes a news obituary for anyone who dies within the core
calendar 2000 The Oregonian
published approximately 12,000 obituaries,
Hortsch said. "Given the number, most are just a few inches long
in order to maintain our commitment to running them." The newspaper
employs two full-time obituary writers and another part-timer. In addition,
news clerks write a few each day.
also writes longer "story" obituaries on people
of widespread interest three or four times a week, said Michael Walden,
day editor on The Oregonian's
coordinating desk. Those of area-wide
interest will be published ROP, but Walden said "we do have aggressive
zoning, so we will sometimes do a story obituary that runs in a particular
zone. For example, we recently wrote a story obituary on a guy who ran
a popular diner in Milwaukee, Oregon. We did a story for that zone,
and also ran a regular short obit in the rest of the paper."
, like most large newspapers also sells paid obituaries
in which families can say whatever they want. These are boxed and in
a smaller typeface to distinguish them from the news obituaries. At
the top of the obituary pages The Oregonian
prints an index by
last name that includes both paid and news obituaries.
(AJC) (396,000 daily, 640,000 Sunday)
is another large newspaper that engages in a number of the practices
that show up in the top 10 Impact group.
publishes both news obituaries and paid obituaries, a practice
that goes back more than 50 years, said AJC
Kay Powell. The short news obituaries are handled by editorial; the
paid obituaries are done by advertising.
in the top 10 papers, the AJC
obituaries are in an anchored position,
in this case in the metro section. Like The Oregonian
, the AJC
is also inclusive: "Our policy is that the list is open to anyone
living or born in Georgia," Powell said. As with many of the top
10 papers, the news obituaries are listed in a detailed regional breakdown
for quick scanning, including a "Georgia" heading for those
outside the metro area.
differs from The Oregonian
in that its news obituaries
are short, containing just the basic information: name, age, date of
death, time, date and place of services. The AJC
to 60 of these daily. However, in addition to the standard short news
obituary, Powell and her staff of 2 ½ write a couple of longer
"story" obituaries each day.
scan through the paid notices and the deaths and funerals list, and
also get ideas through sources we have built through the years,"
Powell said. "From those we pick one or two people that we're able
to write a column on each day.
and foremost, we look for an interesting story for our readers. That's
our first obligation, a good read," Powell said. "We want
to tell a variety of stories. We want to create a sense of community
because we have so many newcomers. We have 360 new people every day
coming to our community.
go for a good cross-section of readership. We write about every nationality
and ethnic group you can think of. We look at women's stories equally
strongly. Our page is so democratic. You don't automatically get an
obit because you were an elected official or president of a company.
Important doesn't equate to interesting."
important, she said, "the article is about how they lived, not
how they died."
has saved letters from readers commenting on the obituaries, such as
the one that said, "the memorial service for Heidi was last night... and everyone was quoting from your obituary. ...Someone said
'how can you keep up with Atlanta if you don't read the obits.' "
Some newspapers have begun to make changes in their obituary policy
and practices as a result of the Impact study. Here is what some of
(circ. 451,200 daily, 554,600 Sunday)
Before February 2000, all obituaries were free and all went to editorial.
However, editorial did not guarantee placement, which means they ran
it when they had space, sometimes even after the funeral. If the obit
didn't have complete information, they wouldn't run it at all.
all obituaries go to classified. All are guaranteed to run when placed.
If the paid obit has just the basic information - name, date, next
of kin - it is free. If it has more detail, and pictures, the Republic
charges on a per line basis. They also accept obituaries from outside
the Phoenix metropolitan area, which was not the prior practice.
new after February 2000 is a section that features an interesting life.
This is an expanded feature article about one of the people who appeared
in the paper's obituaries.
The paper reports "anecdotal satisfaction" with the changes.
The Reader Advocate notes that there have been no complaints about charging
for obituaries and that over all complaints have diminished, especially
since problems with not guaranteeing placement and not accepting submissions
from those outside the Phoenix metropolitan area were eliminated.
addition, the number of Republic
obituaries has increased, as
has lineage. Before the Republic's
policy changes in February
2000, obits ad count was less than 100 per month, and lineage was between
1,500 and 2,000 lines per month. Current ad count averages between 600
and 900 per month, and lineage is between 18,000 and 28,000 per month.
The newspaper reports that "people appreciate, and recognize the
value of, an opportunity to memorialize their loved ones in a public
(circ. 85,300 daily, 91,200 Sunday)
In May 2001 it added an "Area Deaths" directory on page A-2.
Categorized by the counties that the newspaper serves, this daily directory
lists the names of the individual obituaries in that day's paper, and
provides the location within the newspaper where the complete obituary
can be found. The newspaper reports that these changes were "done
as a result of RI research, and so far is proving very popular with
Cruz County Sentinel
(circ. 26,600 daily, 28,800 Sunday)
The newspaper reports on one obituary a day. The Sentinel
RI "our readers like the change. In the past we just rewrote the
information passed over by the funeral homes."
(circ. 551,900 daily, 744,900 Sunday)
In May 2001, the paper made the commitment to have at least one staff-written
obit in the Metro section, along with a list of deaths elsewhere. If
they run an obit in another section, they list it in "deaths elsewhere"
along with a page refer to it.
they do not yet have research on the subject, several editors reported
positive, unaided comments about the increased attention to obits.
(circ. 40,300 daily, 47,300 Sunday)
The newspaper is looking for more feature obituaries to headline. They
report that they have not done enough yet, but their goal is at least
twice monthly. Otherwise their obituaries are anchored on Page 2 of
the local section. They are never broken into two columns, assuring
that they're clippable. The Herald
takes obits as long as they
are from the area or have immediate family in the region.
Herald, Dubuque, Iowa
(circ. 28,700 daily, 34,000 Sunday)
The newspaper reports: "We are more inclined to do regular story
obituaries on interesting or notable people than we were 3-4 years ago."
Some newspapers have been running paid obituaries for decades; others
have made the switch recently or are contemplating the switch.
newspapers that have converted from an exclusively news obituary policy
to a paid obituary policy or hybrid policy have done so with limited
angst. However, John Kridelbaugh at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader
an Impact study newspaper, offers a cautionary tale for those considering
had been doing free obituaries. We usually take one and feature it,
a community leader or other interesting person and do a little more,
say 10 to 12 inches. All the others ran about 5 inches," Kridelbaugh
got a fair amount of complaints from readers who wanted more detail,
or families who wanted to list second cousins as survivors or from funeral
homes because we didn't run everything they sent us."
the newspaper did some research and found that all the other dailies
in the region were charging for obituaries. "So we thought we should
do it. We thought it would please everyone. The families could put in
anything they wanted. So we put together a package explaining what the
new policy was and visited each funeral home. We found they approved,
in fact many said they didn't understand why we hadn't done this years
June 1, 2001, the Argus Leader
converted to a paid policy, at
$35 a column inch. The paid obituaries were supplemented with a basic
free news obituary for every death in the area, much like other newspapers
run: name, age, date of death, time, date and place of the funeral.
was huge negative reader reaction," Kridelbaugh said. "Radio
talk shows talked about it for a week straight. Every TV station did
at least one story, and one did three or four stories on the change.
We had 100 subscription cancellations.
accusation was that we were being money hungry. One car dealer threatened
to pull his advertising. He said he relied on the obituaries. He knew
his customers, but he might not know a wife's maiden name, which he
learned from the obits, so he could send flowers when her mother died,"
one week, the Argus Leader
changed the policy. The first three
inches are free, after that, it's $35 a column inch. They made refunds
to everyone who had purchased an obituary under the new policy and gave
free subscription extensions to all who had canceled to try to lure
them back. Peace seems to have returned to Sioux Falls, Kridelbaugh
The Readership Institute's survey of 37,000 consumers in 100 newspaper
markets found that 45 percent said newspaper obituaries were important
to them - 12 percent said "very important" and another
33 percent said "somewhat important."
group tends to be more female, with at least a high school education
and to have lived in their community somewhat longer than average. They
are a little more likely to be older and retired than the average reader.
They are more likely to be subscribers and they tend to spend more time
with the newspaper and to read it more completely.
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