Friday, April 16, 2010

Death-notice price gouging: Why?

Sure, newspapers are hard up, but exploiting bereaved families with exorbitantly priced death notices seems to be a distasteful and strategically inept way to try to make ends meet.

I stumbled across the problem this week when I tried to buy a death notice in my local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, which proposed charging $450 for the one-day run of a crappy-looking, 182-word death notice.

Instead, I decided, with the consent of my friend’s widow, to donate the money to a college fund for their four children. But she and I remain appalled that the Chronicle would do this to families at the moment of their most exquisite grief.

Chronicle management did not respond to a request for comment.

Newspapers, like funeral directors, know they can charge whatever they want when someone dies, because it’s not a time that people are in a state of mind to hunt for bargains. In most communities, there is only one paper to choose from, so there is no other option, anyway.

Newspapers selling high-priced death notices know that the several hundred dollars they charge will be mere rounding errors in the four- and sometimes five-figure bills generated by the average funeral.

So, yes, they can get away with it. But that doesn’t make it right.

This practice is not only exploitive, but also strategically tone deaf, because it misses a terrific opportunity to cement reader loyalty to a newspaper.

Every country editor knows that names make news. Birth announcements, wedding announcements and death notices are the only ways most people ever get their names in the newspaper, an event that remains a big deal to all but the most jaded individuals.

That’s why many small and medium papers across the country fill a disproportionate amount of their space with news of events that are milestones in the lives of common readers. But obits are popular in big cities, too.

A study at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University last year found that obits were the third most popular topic searched at the Chicago Tribune, adding: “As newspapers refocus their content strategy on local news and information in an environment where they have to cut costs, many have sought to preserve obituary coverage as a driver of audience to their print and online offerings.”

While metros can’t fill their shrinking news holes with every birth, wedding or funeral, they can offer people a free place on their websites to self-chronicle the comings and goings of their families.

It wouldn’t take much space in the print product, either, to run a reference to the names of the people whose life milestones were recorded on their websites in the past 24 hours. And I’ll bet any number of advertisers would be happy to sponsor these high-traffic print and online listings.

So everybody wins. The reader. The advertiser. The newspaper. And the community.

Hyper-local content doesn’t get any hyper-er or local-er than that.

38 Comments:

Blogger eclisham said...

I find charging for obits morally offensive, which I understand puts me in a small minority. But apart from the unnecessary anguish to grieving families, consider the effect when, hundreds of years from now, someone wants to research a community. Newspaper obits will no longer be truly reflective of all its residents, just the wealthy ones. It's classism at its worst, to convey the message that only those who can pay are worthy of obit space.

7:08 AM  
Blogger O! said...

Agreed.

7:49 AM  
Blogger enigma said...

I've watched newspapers dump free obits, engagement notices, birth notices and wedding announcements. They've become just another ad sale...and now they're gouging on 'em, too.
Gee, I wonder why newspapers are losing circulation?

8:11 AM  
Blogger Erstwhile Editor said...

I fought the arrival of paid obituaries, birth announcements and weddings during my 33-year career as an editor of small dailies, but I ultimately lost the battle. My argument was that readers see these milestones as news, not advertising. But the temptation of "low-hanging fruit" was too much to resist. When my father-in-law died recently, his small-town daily charged more than $400 to put the obit in print, but it was not posted online.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Kenny said...

It has, unfortunately, been going on for some time now.

That's service to one's comment, alright.

9:51 AM  
Blogger morethan15minutesoffame said...

I work for a small-town newspaper in Minnesota that charges $50 for obituaries no matter what the size. When I started here about eight years ago, we published obituaries for free and printed those obituaries according to our style. However, problems arose when people wanted us to print large obituaries or when people didn't like the fact that we didn't print the name of every grandchildren when there were 20 grandchildren.

1:29 PM  
Blogger jerry said...

Perhaps seven or eight years ago, newspaper companies started ambitious programs to teach publishers and funeral directors how to VASTLY increase the revenue from death notices. The general idea wasn't new, of course; almost everyone carried dry, formal, agate-style notices that weren't cheap even then. However, the idea beginning around 2003 was to offer families a chance to tell the deceased's story in great detail in their own numerous unedited words--and in bigger type and certainly with a photo or other doodad. I feared that these paid obits on steroids would spell the end of "news" obits but was told there wasn't a connection. Well, for whatever reason--smaller staffs, smaller newshole or these longer paid obits--news obits have practically, um, died. Seems ironic given that broadcast competition never challenged print on these wonderful reader features about important and less important people. Obits used to be a great way for readers to learn local history, too. At this point, The Washington Post is one of the few papers left doing wonderful obits on lots of people every day--with a great blog, Post Mortem, to boot.

4:34 PM  
Blogger Steely Dan said...

Having paid (through the nose) for two of these in The Chronicle, I can only say to this blog item: Amen.

5:46 PM  
Blogger DS said...

Paid obits are much different than the reporter-written variety. They teem with life, personality, a sense of who the person was at heart, friends, beloved pets, and even one-sided family feuds. The family pays a lot for this privilege. What did they give up? Free, short, mundane announcements. Newspapers have no good way to do obits with their resources - now or anytime in the past 20 years. Either its impartial, unengaging and shriviled or its the family running amok - at times poignant and meaningful.

6:04 PM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

I paid the Boston Globe for a death notice when my father died in 1993. As I remember, the fee was $50. The intended audience, his older friends, needed to get the schedule for funeral services and this (along with a phone tree) was the best way to reach them quickly. I just went on line to see what the fee is today. Got as far as http://bostonglobe.com/advertiser/mediakit/mediakit.aspx?id=1373 but the link to the rates is broken! The Globe never misses a chance to miss a chance to gain revenue, it seems.

6:59 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Morethan15minutesoffame is correct, but we handle the problem by letting the family decide. If they let us write the obituary in our news style, it's news and it's free. If they insist on their wording it's an ad. Most opt for free. The obit is included in our e-Edition at no charge and is available online through NewsBank for less than $3.
Bruce at www.ChampionNewspapers.com

7:08 PM  
Blogger jwenk98 said...

Two years ago the S. F. Chronicle lost some revenue when a formerly well known member of the San Francisco ad community died. I was the Executrix of her estate and with other friends had planned a small, tightly written obituary notice. Then the funeral director told me the Chronicle minimum listing was $250. Knowing the state of her estate I said no obituary notice. And we depended on word of mouth and e-mails to spread the word. Last year I read here that of top 25 metro dailies in the U. S. the Chronicle had lost the most circulation in both percentage and absolute numbers. Now some days they barely fill a page with obituary notices. While the Oakland Tribune still has classified ads and obituary notices. Cause and effect?

10:42 PM  
Blogger Donovan said...

Let freedom ring. Choose to either pay or choose to not pay. No need to make it a moral crusade. It is simply a free choice.

10:50 PM  
Blogger G said...

When we did an obit for my dad back in '04, it wound up being about a column and a half in length.

Got charged a shade under $1000 for it.

I can almost imagine the price for a two column obit I saw a couple a weeks ago for someone.

Unreal.

5:03 AM  
Blogger J. Garland Pollard IV said...

You are right on in this one, as with so many other things. Another reason why when the dinosaurs all die off, or become fossils, this time it won't be because of the meteors.

The reality is that a long, extensive obit is PACKED with keywords, and keywords are the future of online. If newspapers cannot afford to hire writers, then they need to get users to submit content, and charging discourages that.

I worked at a daily paper in a REALLY poor city and felt the same shame.

http://www.blackcowpress.com/obits-the-next-craigslist-or-opportunity-for-newspapers/

5:46 AM  
Blogger California Girl said...

Wow. That's absurd.

When my father died, his local newspaper published his obit for a very nominal sum. Dad had it prepared so we only sent it in. Now, he was retired and living in a small town in Santa Barbara County, but still. I don't know what the LA Times might have charged but I sent his obit to AdWeek as he was in the biz and they published it gratis.

7:42 AM  
Blogger IFOG0T said...

For a Newspaper with a circulation of 300 000, $450 doesn't really seem that extortionate. They're not trying to run a charity and have to recoup costs.
That's why they charge more for the larger notices and usually will have reasonable prices for smaller ones.

I can understand how people feel pressured to pay give their loved ones the best possible of farewells, but ultimately it's up to them to decide. For those with money, there are certainly many willing to offer premium services.

4:38 PM  
Blogger bernard said...

If they can get it, why not charge it? What are newspapers charities?


I have noticed that some newspapers use it to generate free news stories too. Long obituaries are published by the family around the advertisement as news.

7:54 PM  
Blogger John A. Newby said...

Passing along a reasonable cost to users is quite fair. It costs the newspaper real dollars to provide that information. The days of running a newspaper without consideration for the bottom-line are over.

That said, obits are an item that need not be used to generate major profits to the bottom-line, so moderate or reasonable prices need to be established that cover their cost. I don't believe most expect the obits to be free, they do however expect the cost to be fair for their marketplace.

We have paid obits, however we allow the families to say what they will. We have changed the heading from "obits" to "Remembering a Lifetime".

6:13 AM  
Blogger gg said...

Free obits that list name, age, hometown, funeral and burial details. Pay for the rest. Why is this difficult?

And do you really think people who subscribe to newspapers for the obits will check a web portal for updates? It's 2010! Funeral homes have already filled that niche and will do so better than newspapers every time.

If you want to be valuable, push obits on a free subscription model. Send them by SMS, e-mail, Twitter, RSS. It's a service to deliver to people, not a chore to set up for them.

This probably won't make anyone - including advertisers - any money, nor should it. It's wrong for the newspaper to charge $450 to print six column inches in a 300k circulation paper, but it's OK to make money by instead dropping some LOSE 20 POUNDS WITH THIS ONE SECRET monstrosities next to your friend on their website? I'd stick with reader loyalty as the reason and give up on the revenue stream. There's no morally acceptable way to monetize the dead and bereaved.

6:20 AM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

I think the associated issue is long-term survival of the the paper, vs short-term profit. The Herald was New York City's leading paper into World War II. Each paper had a newsprint allocation during the war. The Herald used its ration to maximize ad revenue. The New York Times blew the Herald away by tilting its space toward news -- of which there was plenty. The NYT also compressed its typography (the Herald's expanded-type headlines were unrivaled in beauty).

After the war, people kept reading the NYT. That's where the news was, after all. The Herald died.... and died too early to blame the Internet.

6:37 AM  
Blogger Rod Rose said...

Think $450 is a lot? The Indianapolis Star charged a friend $3,200. My paper charges $55 without photo, $60 with a photo. The text is edited for style but not length. We held off charging as long as we could, although local funeral homes have, for years, been dinging families $150 to submit obits.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Charles Hansen said...

Our newspapers were charging by the word in the 1930s for obits. They sometimes did have a second free obit for long time residents or famous people. So even today a lot of people that died in our area in the 1930s have no obits. A few years ago the funeral homes got together and they put the death notices in the paper at no direct cost to the families.

10:26 AM  
Blogger blogging said...

I agree the price of a printed obit is absurd. But not seeing a real alternative here. Saying "they can offer people a free place on their websites to self-chronicle the comings and goings of their families" doesn't work.

Why would anyone use a newspaper site for this when there are so many other sites out there that would do it better? Whose family is tied to a single geographic region? Most newspaper sites are ugly from a design perspective, and anything that gets decent traffic will get piled with ads. No thanks.

Social media companies can easily add a place for this kind of distribution to happen free, and already have memorialization features. As demand for this grows they have broader scale and wider distribution than many papers do. Papers will miss the boat again chasing classified revenue.

12:41 PM  
Blogger edited said...

In NY, a tiny-type obit in the NY Times costs hundreds, but they are well read (still).

When I placed an obit for my father several years ago, and paid several hundred dollars, I assumed it would run online, so there'd be a record of the death. I learned afterwards that NY Times paid obits are advertising pure plays and so, no, they don't run online unless you pay extra. Which I did.

The weekly paper I published did not run obits as a matter of course. Famous people, yes. And if someone called, we'd try to get something in.

Occasionally, a family would buy a display ad to showcase something special, and we'd make up an especially low price. The idea of charging for line ads when the content is essentially news never appealed to me.

7:43 AM  
Blogger zgriner said...

Newspapers should be differentiating between obituaries and death notices. Print a plain vanilla death notice at a plain vanilla price, but encourage the printing of an additional obituary, glorifying the deceased's life, at a glorious price.

8:02 AM  
Blogger inprint said...

Some families choose to pay tribute to loved ones with elaborate services costing more while others choose lower cost alternatives. In the same manner, some families desire large tributes in their local newspapers while others want only a simple "official record" for geneological purposes. By charging enough to offset expenses and make it worthwhile to dedicate resources to the task, newspapers respect families choices. As one of the last mass reach mediums, newspapers help to get the word out to the broadest possible audience in the timliest manner. With the average cost of a funeral approaching $8,000according the National Funeral Directors Association, newspapers are not out of line offering paid obits.

8:17 AM  
Blogger klucin said...

Many papers, including the one I work at, do not charge for brief death notices with service times.

They do, however, charge for long-form obituaries including biographical details, partly because we do not have space for everyone's hobbies and relatives and cats to be named. (Yes, cats.)

Before we went to paid obits (which we cut and paste into the paper in their entirety) we had to cut a lot of information from each obit just because of space, and had a rigid format. Now you can put in whatever you want, provided you are willing to pay for it.

And for people who do not want to or cannot spend the money, the death notice with service times and survivors is still free.

I feel this is a fair way to do it. I always found it depressing having to cut out all the pet names, friends, and loving family tributes.

8:28 AM  
Blogger BH said...

Rather than bemoan the greed of newspaper publishers, why not comfort the afflicted by launching a free national self-service death notices and obits site? Of course, sponsorship advertising would be welcome to offset hosting and support.
We need a url, $50k for site development and marketing. Death notices would also be printable for those wanting a hard copy.
We need 50 people, willing to donate 1k each in memory of a loved one, to launch.
Who's in?

8:31 AM  
Blogger Rod Rose said...

klucin,

Well, OK, but I still maintain a human cannot be survived by anything with four legs.

And, perhaps it's my skepticism, but when a family wants to say the deceased "leapt into the arms of the Lord," I want to say, "prove it."

Parenthetically, the human verification code for this entry is "dogma." Should I consider that a warning, or karma?

2:37 PM  
Blogger jamesrwilson said...

What is worse than a paid obituary? Three years ago my partner, Gregory's mother passed away. I wrote her obituary and it was published as I wrote it in the local Wisconsin paper. We also sent it to the paper in her hometown in Arkansas. That wasn't free either, but rather than printing the obituary as I had written it, they took great editorial license. In the section where I listed Gregory's family, I had of course listed myself as Gregory's life-partner. The paper deleted me from the obituary. When we contacted them to ask WTF?, we were told that mention of my name "wasn't appropriate" for a "family-run" newspaper. So we paid for an obituary, and ended up getting so much more--like hurt and pain and confusion. There was no mention of a "we can't publish anything about gay people in our paper--even the obits section"; no one contacted us to let us know that the obit we paid for would be doctored up and made to be hurtful. If Gregory's mom and his family wanted me mentioned, then what the hell was the newspaper doing making that sort of decision? The refused to refund any of the money for the obit and bigotry was allowed to win. We had never felt more abused than the day that obit appeared and our relationship, now tens years strong, was obliterated.

9:09 PM  
Blogger klucin said...

Well, people do write all sorts of things in ads, which is functionally what a paid obituary is.

10:04 PM  
Blogger GayleOpie said...

My mother died last year and I put obits in the papers in Austin as well as in our hometown in South Dakota. The total was about $500 which I thought was outrageous. But even worse was the fact that our hometown paper wouldn't print the little death notice from the mortuary in Austin because my mom didn't have any children, parents, or siblings in the area. I objected saying that if that was all we cared about getting notice, I would just call but that she had many friends and associates from her 80 years of living there before moving to Texas. They were unmoved. Since newspapers are no longer locally owned, the focus is not on the community but on the bottom line. Many obits no longer make it into the appropriate papers because of the cost. From a genealogical viewpoint, it is a disaster.

9:56 AM  
Blogger dorothy said...

Newspaper and online obits are usually offered at a good deal, less than regular ad rates and available online anytime. I provide a great service at my hometown paper, that people appreciate and usually don't quibble about the price at all. This writer may be more likely shellshocked from health care and funeral costs- why does he think our service should be free? We have staff, printing, typesetting, layout and transportation costs to get that obit out there! Thanks to the comments of DS and Bruce, let newspapers live on and pay their employees & expenses let alone try to make some $$! Plus his idea does not fly- if the goal is to set aside money for an organization or college fund- write that at the end of the obit and one will likely get way more in contributions going out to 100s of thousands of readers than the measly cost of the writing!

3:42 PM  
Blogger Fran said...

It's just another revenue stream for newspapers. The Internet has cleaned out a source of revenue for many newspapers, and many are dealing with layoffs and even bankruptcy. It's a way of life now. But charging so much will alienate its very readers. Print all obits as death notices and longer ones should be paid, but the price should be reasonable.

8:47 AM  
Blogger John said...

I wanted to place an obituary for my wife in the local paper, the San Jose Mercury News, but at $310/day I decided to give the money to her favorite charity where it do some good, rather to some greedy, failing for good reason, newspaper. Bad enough they rarely print anything but corporate/government propaganda, but when they gouge people in their time of need, they can go away, the sooner the better.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Bruce Wood said...

Before the blame is placed on the newspaper find out what the mortuary charges to place the obituary in the newspaper. As mentioned above we run obituaries for free BUT we discovered one out-of-town mortuary charges the family $500 to fill out the form. We don't see a nickel of that $500. Who's the greedy one now?

7:18 PM  
Blogger Bruce Wood said...

Before the blame is placed on the newspaper find out what the mortuary charges to place the obituary in the newspaper. As mentioned above we run obituaries for free BUT we discovered one out-of-town mortuary charges the family $500 to fill out the form. We don't see a nickel of that $500. Who's the greedy one now?

7:20 PM  

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