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.