Tuesday, January 04, 2011

As more weekly newspapers charge for obituaries, some editors and publishers resist

The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors posted a query from one of its members asking the membership about charging for previously free obituaries: "Come the first of the year we are going to start charging for obituaries, and I just wanted to check with you for some ideas. One area newspaper has a flat rate charge. Another charges by the character. Ideally, we would charge by the column inch or the line but we have to figure out how our funeral homes could figure those rates." The question about how to charge for obituaries immediately turned into a discussion of whether to do so. Some of the responses appear below in edited form. For the full versions and most of the rest, click here.

"We never charged for obits. . . . We believed, and still do, that the milestones of one’s life — birth, marriage, death — deserve complimentary coverage. We often did extensive obits, on both the “prominent” and not so prominent. Every life has a story. My mom recently passed away and at a time of grief it seemed heartless when one newspaper charged over $350 for a small obit (The Denver Post wanted over $1,000 for that same obit!). Our hometown paper charged $188. One has to wonder when deaths stopped being news. . . . No wonder the public is angry with newspapers!
Marcia Wood, former owner, The Chronicle, Angel Fire, N.M.

Our obits continue to be free. Our major competitor, a daily, runs two to three pages of paid obits a day, so we figure we're doing our local readers a service. And as long as we have space, we publish with minimal editing. For significant deaths, we'll run the obit and do a news page story.
Mo Mehlsak, The Forecaster, Portland, Me.

They are such a part of the news of our small county, that it seems akin to charging to run sports photos or school news. . . .  It's just a part of the small community experience. We have to help each other as much as we can. Paula Barnett, Publisher, Woodruff County Monitor, McCrory, Ark.

We do consider obituaries to be news. Last month I had one that explained the deceased woman's grandfather was a bootlegger and the grand kids had to hide under the porch when customers came to call. While under the porch she saw Bonnie and Clyde buying whiskey. Apparently she told the story all her life. That's good stuff. In another instance, the woman had written her own obit, about 2,500 words and pretty interesting. I couldn't run that much, so I cut it back, but noted in the paper that I had done so and invited anyone interested to stop by the paper and I'd give them a copy of the entire thing. About four people showed up, and the library asked for a copy for its archives.
Obit rules include that the . . . obit also can't say or imply that someone went to heaven. I tell people God and I have a deal that he makes that determination, not the Herald Democrat. I haven't gotten an obit yet that says that the deceased went to hell. That would be tempting.
Marcia Martinek, Editor, Herald Democrat, Leadville, CO

We are attempting to keep our obits FREE for as long as the economy makes it possible to do so as a community service. Our free obits are edited to our format (listing ONLY immediate family names in the survivors list and preceded in death list; bare-bones biographical info such as marriage date, employment, military service, education)
Bryan E. Jones, Editor, Versailles Leader-Statesman, 573-378-5441

I don't believe in giving these types of things for free; our space is valuable and if they want to put something in the paper, whether it's an obit or a birthday, they should pay, whether they are local or not. . . . We do give other things for free, however: We run a blood donor clinic, spring cleanup and Halloween house decorating contest ...
Steve Bonspiel, Editor/Publisher, The Eastern Door

Our obits are formatted at 9 point, 2 columns wide. Each line is $5.40. . . . We do run a death notice free of charge: name of deceased, age, date of death, day and time of services, and name of funeral home.
Steve Ranson, Lahontan Valley News, Fallon, Nev.

We offer free obits that include just name and basic info, including service information. We started charging last year and are very happy with our system.
Steve Zender, The Progressor-Times, Carey, Ohio

All five of my community newspapers charge $5 per column inch, including photo and headline. We still allow small free obits (without pic) that include name, age, city of residence and date of service.
David Brown, Publisher, Cherokee Scout, 89 Sycamore St., Murphy, N.C.

Why we charge for obits: It's to make life simpler for us and eliminate issues with bereaved families.
Galena is served by two daily newspapers on the east and west. They began charging for obits and people began preparing longer and longer obits, which included pet names, etc. When we edited those obits, the response was always, "Well, he Dubuque paper ran my obit exactly the way I wanted it."
And then came the day when a woman called to complain about the obit of her mother being wrong in the paper (some piece of information that wasn't sent us) and told her that we'd need to charge for running the obit the second time. She became furious, because the funeral home had charged them $300 for running the obit in my newspaper. She was even less happy upon learning that we didn't charge for obits.  We started charging the very next week and haven't looked back. . .
P. Carter Newton, publisher, cnewton@galgazette.com (office)

The Consort Enterprise in Alberta still runs obits at no charge, which is becoming an issue here as obituaries are becoming biographies.
Consort Enterprise

We do not charge for a standard obituary which includes basic information without children's spouses' names, grandchildren's names, and "He was a good husband and father." Our paid obits are per column inch with most costing less than $100.
Susan Berg, Editor, Marion County Record, Hillsboro Star-Journal and Peabody Gazette-Bulletin, Marion, Kan.

Think about the community history that's lost because obits have become ads. In my newspaper's pages, many people's lives have been boiled down to a name, age, hometown and date of funeral - two or three sentences tops. We do a free death notice of a couple of sentences - all obits are paid, after years of free obits and longer paid obits. Why? Probably because these families don't have the money to capture their loved one's life. That's a sad delineation and a loss for history.
Andy Schotz, Hagerstown, Md.

Our policy here . . . changed about a year ago from all free for obit and death notices to a flat fee of $20 (with or without photo b/w). We do not charge this to our three advertising local funeral homes, but do to all other funeral homes or other submitters. We have never written any obits; we leave that to the families and funeral homes. We do not charge for any death notices. I made the decision to start charging "others" because I felt the local funeral homes were carrying the cost the obits for the "others". We have received no complaints about our obits policy.
Paul J. Seeling - Owner, Editor and Publisher, Gateway Publishing (Sun-Argus, Woodville Leader, My Gateway News, ADRC News, Valley Values), Woodville, Wis.

I am also editor of our county historical society, and I can’t tell you how exciting it is to find a detailed obit with lots of family info. Where would we be without them?
Paula Barnett, Publisher, Woodruff County Monitor

About five years ago we switched to a three-tiered system for obituaries here in Medford. Prior to that we ran them all for free, but they had to conform to our style and our policies (no flowery language, in-laws listed by name only when the spouse was still alive, grandchildren listed by number and not name) which led to a lot of headaches and disgruntled customers who would argue they only had 1 grandchild as compared to so and so who had 55 and couldn't we please make an exception just for them. As a result we were getting a lot of people angry because of arbitrary policies to which we blindly adhered. If you couldn't tell, I wasn't a fan of that system. We also found out that our local funeral homes were charging customers an "obituary preparation fee" to send us in the notice of death form, which bugged us more than a little bit since we were the ones who wrote up the obituaries and got the grief when the information provided to us by the funeral home was incorrect.
We have a standing directive in the newsroom that prominent citizens such as those who have been recognized by "lifetime achievement" awards from the community or other similar honor get a news obituary written about their death regardless of what the family chooses to do for obituaries. The scope of this story depends on the impact the person had on the community and newsworthiness.
Brian Wilson, News Editor, The Star News, Medford, Wis.

Charging for obituaries is a good way to start your newspaper on a downhill slide. The newspaper should be printing every obituary it can get its hands on free to record the life stories of the people in the community and to provide a historical record. Charging for obituaries will cause some people not to submit them. Whether that percentage is 10 percent, 25 percent or 50 percent, I don't know, but even the smallest percentage is too much. People in your community should know who died; it shouldn't depend on whether the family wants to pay to tell the community.
Charles Gay, former weekly publisher, Sheldon, Wash.

We don't charge for obits but they have to be local. That sometimes raises questions about, "How local?" If a second cousin of the village president dies in the Bahamas, we probably wouldn't run it.
David Giffey. Editor, Home News, Spring Green, Wis.

We do not charge for obits, birth announcements, weddings, engagements or anniversaries. Heck, we don't even charge for the thank-you notes that follow, although some people choose to buy ads so they can make their thank-you note prettier. My goal is that we will never have to charge for these things. We have a seasonal economy and charging would mean a lot of those announcements would never make it in the paper. We also use a very light hand to edit them, especially on obituaries. They're the very things that connect the community to the newspaper, and they're the very things that tell the history of the community.
Lori Evans, editor and publisher, Homer (Alaska) News

We charge for the "death notice" - details of the death and where the funeral is. It's a flat fee, about £30 for a limited number of words. For the funeral report - biographical details and list of mourners - we don't make a charge and I can't imagine doing so in the near future. We're clearly out of step by NOT charging, but I still agree with Charlie Gay that obituary reports are news, and a popular part of the paper. We do lose money by not charging but on the other hand, everyone at the funeral is going to buy the paper to see their name - some of them might be new readers and could then realise what a fantastic paper we are. People also buy the paper to post out to relatives.
Jeremy Condliffe, Editor, Congleton Chronicle, Cheshire, England, U.K. (ISWNE president)

Here at the Yellow Springs News, we don't charge for obits, considering them a community service. And their lengths vary wildly— we try to print what's submitted, although of course we reserve the right to edit or cut them if necessary. I had no clue how unusual it is that (some) community papers don't charge until in recent years my own mother died, and like several other editors who wrote in, I was shocked at the high price of putting anything in her hometown paper, much less something long (I'm afraid the editors of those obit pages were the puzzled recipients of my misplaced rage). I remain proud that we can offer this service and believe it creates remarkable good will in the community, which is, of course, priceless.
Diane Chiddister, Yellow Springs (Ohio) News

I edit three community weeklies, and we do not charge for obituaries. We take out comments such as "he was loved by his family" but publish pretty much all the factual details the funeral home sends, and a photo if provided. We look at it as news.
Leslie O'Donnell in New Hampshire

The Alcona County Review in northeastern Michigan still considers obituaries news and doesn’t charge to have them published. They must adhere to our “style” which excludes eulogizing and other personal comments. If someone doesn’t want to follow our guidelines, then they are welcome to pay for an obituary and it is marked as paid advertising. At different times in the last few years we’ve discussed charging for obits, but feel that the good will that is gained from it and the thank you ads that are almost always placed in our newspaper after the funeral (to friends, family, etc. that have shown support) more than makes up for the “lost revenue.”
Cheryl Peterson, editor/publisher, Alcona County Review

We charge for all standard death notices including more wordy messages. On the other hand we run ‘Vale’ editorials initiated within our editorial teams or from the community at no charge. These are run somewhat sparingly and most often feature community and social leaders; long serving doctors, sporting legends, political and council or political leaders. Most often this is done with the close support and involvement of the family of the deceased. ... We run approximately seven to eight death notices per week in my largest weekly and the same paper runs fewer than a dozen ‘Vales’ in a year.
Matt Jenkins, General Manager, matt.jenkins@benallaensign.com.au

Are you freakin' kidding me – charging folks for obits seems a VERY slippery road indeed.  . . . Newspapers are hurting, but, believe me, prostituting your newsroom isn't going to solve your problems. Not in the long run, anyway.
Richard Mostyn, Editor, Yukon News, rmostyn@yukon-news.com

The story we write when the mayor dies is news. The obituary his family wants in the newspaper is paid for and runs at the beginning of our classified section. We deal with the funeral home which buries the cost (ha ha) in its fees. Obits are posted to our website. No complaints. We don't seem to deal in many death notices unless the death occurs at deadline and the funeral is going to be right after the paper comes out. They are paid as well.
George at PonokaNews.com

The Hickman County Times, Centerville, Tenn., tries to run all obituaries for free. We do not succeed.
Our basic obit includes names of immediate family, limited highlights of the deceased's life -- where born, parents, occupation, civic involvements, military affiliation, church -- and service information. Also, we include names of immediate family who have died. Picture is free.
If a family wants more than our basic obit -- which usually runs 4-5 inches and is pretty comprehensive -- they can say what they want for $40.
Brad Martin, Editor

When we began publishing 17 months ago, it never occurred to me to charge for obituaries. We are a small town and more than half of our population is composed of seniors. Of the 131 members of the local senior center, the average age is 80. We could use the revenue, but the response to our obituaries is priceless. Literally. We often run obits from the funeral homes, but at least half the time, I'm asked to come and interview the family and write the obit. I include the usual stats, but I also treat it like any other interview and look for the personal traits and foibles that folks remember and loved about that person. I think writing obits is an important job. In a town this small, I often know the deceased and have sometimes been friends with him or her. You are crafting the only memory/news/stories that a grandchild or great grandchild might have access to. I take it very seriously and have had at least one man ask his wife to have me write the obit when he died. That's a compliment that means a lot to me.
If the person was well-known in town, we might also follow up with a photo and caption for Celebration of Life. Again, treating it like local news, which it is.
Jessica L. Lloyd-Rogers, Coast Lake News, Lakeside, Ore.

If, 40 years ago, when I bought my newspaper, someone had told me I could:
• have someone else provide me, on a regular basis, a mini-feature story on someone in my circulation area or who had a connection to my area ...
• be guaranteed these mini-features would, week after week, be one of the most well-read features in my newspaper ...
• have people call me and thank me for printing the story about their friend and family member exactly as they wanted it ...
• provide a lasting piece of history guaranteed to be clipped and kept, recorded for posterity, and be a part of history books ...
... I would be sad about the cost someone else pays to make these possible, but happy about the fact I do not have to pay for them myself.
All of my funeral homes said they were surprised we did not already charge, encouraged us to do so if we felt the need, but ... then one director made a fateful remark: "Robert, everyone here wants their obit in your newspaper. But they feel they have to have their obits in the (nearby daily) because it makes the news available quickly. They don't like paying for it there, but feel like they have no choice. Once they have paid for the obit to appear there, if it is going to be another several days before your obit appears, then some people are likely to say: 'Nah, let's don't pay a second time, since we've already paid to put it in (the daily.)" That's when it dawned on me that he made sense and, ultimately, we would soon no longer be the "newspaper of historic record" that everyone knows will have EVERY obituary.
Robert M. Williams, Jr., Publisher, SouthFire Newspapers Group, Blackshear Ga. (The Alma Times, The Blackshear Times, Charlton County Herald, The Monroe County Reporter, The Telfair Enterprise,
Three Rivers Gazette)

Input from a just-sold-out weekly publisher: I always operated by the motto "look for ways to get reader submissions into the paper rather than making up rules to keep them out." Yes, we have a necessary role as news gatekeepers, buy I've had readers respond to the darnedest submitted "news" items that didn't exactly follow the high-minded ambitions learned in J-school. I understand tight finances, but newsprint's cheap. Open up those newsholes as much as possible. Create features to encourage No. 3 above, which one might think of as a prehistoric precursor to Facebook. Here's an idea to satisfy all, even the journalistic purists among us: Make your main obituary wholly fact based, journalistically sound. Add a sidebar that might say: "Here's how family and friends remembered the late Joe Blow:" Maybe several bullet points to follow about his favorite dog, devotion to God, and how he coped with his dyslexia when he got them mixed up, etc.
David Mullings, former owner, Ouray County Plaindealer & The Ridgway Sun, Ouray, Colo.

We treat obituaries as essential news. Because they are not paid advertising, we feel we can write, edit or rewrite as we would any other news story. We want our paper to be the place where people find all the obits, as complete as possible, and well-written. The funeral homes are helpful in sending obits but we rarely use them just as they are. We may edit for space in a tight week. For example, it is common practice here for families to include a long list of honorary pall bearers; sometimes we cut those. We try to treat everyone equally, so we don't do anything special for "prominent" people. We make use of our local history books for fact checking. We try to maintain a high standard of quality for the photos, although we sometimes run what we are given even if the photo is not good because we think it's important to have some image of the person with their obituary. I can't imagine that we will ever charge for obits.Kathy Nelson, Timber Lake Topic

I was nine or 10 years old when my grandfather, Edward Newberg, died. The daily Grand Island (Neb.) Independent published his obituary and photo on page 1. He was no celebrity or public figure -- he was an area farmer who'd lived most of his life in the area. But his death was front-page news to the Independent. As a kid, I was really impressed with the newspaper. I still have the clipping.
When I owned, published and edited a weekly in Montana (the Bigfork Eagle), I refused (at times, even angering family members) to run paid obituaries. They were news -- often the deaths were the talk of the town. The obits were news, and we re-wrote the pablum that most of the funeral homes submitted.
We did allow family-written obits (no charge) if they were well written. We required that a cause of death be included. (If it was a suicide, we wouldn't include that detail in the obit.) Remembering my grandfather, I tried to publish obits as often as I could on page 1. I think our obit policy was both good journalism and a good business practice.
Marc Wilson

We are now charging. The Express traditionally did not charge but we edited the obituary for according to our style guidelines. When we added the Record (the two share a common obituary page) we had a problem because the Record published obituaries as written with no editing. Record readers were unhappy with our editing so the compromise was to charge 30 percent of our display ad rate to run the complete obit. We still correct grammar but if they want to list a dog among the survivors, or whatever, we will where we wouldn't have before. We mark them as paid obits and they are well read. We also are charging $7 to include a photo with the obit. That has been surprisingly popular.
Bill Blauvelt, The Superior Express/Jewell County Record, Superior, Neb.; Mankato, Kan.

Personally, I agree with Andy Schotz, Marcia Woods, Charlie Gay, Cheryl Peterson, Lori Evans, Richard Mostyn and others that deaths are news, and that news shouldn't be sold. However, Helen and I sold our last weekly three years ago, and I do understand the financial pressures that have impacted many of you in that time.
Helen and I didn't charge for obituaries at our weeklies in Humansville, Seymour and Vandalia, Mo., though we insisted on editing what the funeral home or family submitted. Once in a while, a family member would complain that we wouldn't run what the family submitted word-for-word and offered to pay for it. I'd try to convince the family to wait until the paper came out, see what we wrote, and then decide whether it still wanted to pay for something different. Only once or twice did that happen.
We also wrote lengthy front-page stories on the deaths of prominent folks.
We've all had the experience of receiving obits from two "sides" of a family when the deceased has been divorced. Each side submits a different list of survivors. In those cases, we went with what the funeral home supplied.
One more story: I lament the return of the word "passes" as a substitute for "dies." John Jones didn't pass (unless he was in his car); he died. A predecessor owner of our Humansville Star-Leader published front-page obits in the 1950s. And, yes, around 1956, he had the misfortune of publishing an obit with a typo in the headline: "Mrs. Brown pisses."
I want to thank everyone for the thoughtful responses to my customer's question. I enjoyed the vigorous discussion, one of the best we've had with the hotline.
Gary Sosniecki, newspaper consultant

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