Back to Life: Newspapers Should Improve Obituaries before Another Revenue Stream Dies

By DeRienzo, Matt | Editor & Publisher, March 2020 | Go to article overview

Back to Life: Newspapers Should Improve Obituaries before Another Revenue Stream Dies


DeRienzo, Matt, Editor & Publisher


As newspapers have struggled with the decline of advertising revenue from retail, auto, real estate and recruitment, many have leaned on preprints, legal advertising and obituaries for stability.

But there are warning signs about the future of these print edition mainstays. The health of big retail itself threatens preprints, and the pack mentality should one or two major chains abandon or significantly cut back means others could follow quickly. And there are annual attempts to lift legal advertising requirements in state legislatures across the country.

Paid obituaries might seem like the safest of the three. Two things certain in life: death and taxes. Right?

Well, consider the context. They are extremely expensive. There's little flexibility on presentation. Their appearance in print is the ugliest text-based thing in most newspapers. The user experience of paid obituaries online is lousy. Condolences and conversation about someone's passing are far more likely to happen on Facebook than the "memory book" under an online obituary.

Paid obituaries are due for disruption, and newspapers should disrupt their own way of doing them before it's out of their control.

Steve Waldman, a media entrepreneur and author of an FCC study in 2011 on the changing media landscape, predicts a "collapse" of newspapers' paid obituary business.

"It's being propped up by an older generation for whom posting the death notice for a loved one 'in the local newspaper' was a sacred and essential act," he said. "The next generation will not have that commitment ... If news organizations continue to raise the price of death notices without dramatically improving their services, they'll kill that last golden goose that is still tottering around."

Waldman founded Life Posts, a company that aimed to improve online obituaries and offer media companies a platform for other "life celebrations," such as anniversaries and graduations, in 2014. It was up against Legacy, corn's near-newspaper monopoly, and publishers' skittishness about risking any amount of short-term revenue. And while still active, Waldman has shifted his focus to Report for America, an ambitious effort to build a Peace Corps-type effort for local journalism that he co-founded.

When his father died in the fall, a 200-word death notice in the New York Times, with no photo, cost more than the casket.

Even at small, local daily newspapers, a paid obituary of that size can be triple the cost of an annual subscription. …

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