This is off the usual topics for this blog. Obituaries are completely out of the control of most newsrooms, so my intended audience — journalists — can do nothing about this complaint. But having dipped into the obituary pool Friday after my mother died, I can report with great authority that on this part of their business, this nation’s newspapers are practically lying naked across a table, eyes closed, holding a sign that says, “Whatever,” waiting for a madman with a knife to come along. If you have never made arrangements to place an obituary, let me assure you: It is messy, and it is EXPENSIVE. It is everything, in fact, that begs for someone to come along offering a simpler, easier, cheaper solution — an idea that was introduced to the news industry years ago as a job to be done. But of course no one really wants to make it cheaper, because that would reduce revenue. I remember once hearing a publisher gripe about a company-imposed mandate to simplify and beautify classified ads; the end result was a better-looking (bigger type, more photos), more enticing page that offered more options to people placing the ads, but the ads were bigger without the price going up, so revenue per ad was lower. Focusing on that is just short-term thinking — the number of classified ads has been dropping like a rock for years, driven by free online ads, so the intent of the change was to try to improve the printed ad experience and stem the decline, and maybe entice more people to come back. If you’re constantly watching your back, trying not to lose more ground, you can’t go forward.
Almost two years ago, Steve Buttry pointed out the problems and opportunities in the obit business. He was right then, and he’s righter now. But it’s even worse than I knew when I read his post in 2010.
I attempted to place my mother’s obituary in five newspapers — in the town where she was born, in the city where she began her journalism career, in the city where she retired, in the city where she lived for 10 years before a heart attack changed her life and mine, and in my own city. One told me that obits had to come from a funeral home, not individuals, which is a barrier because I’m not using a funeral home; my mother is being cremated by the Cremation Society of Virginia, which told me to handle the ads myself. I explained this but was told the ad had to come from a funeral home. So, one paper gets no ad. The cost at the other papers ranged from around $300 to nearly $500 (in my own city, the ad was free because I work for the company — an excellent employee benefit but one you hope never to use). In the accompanying listing for each at legacy.com (yes, each one has a separate, unlinked listing), my mother’s name appears as Anita Lucas, even though she never went by Anita — like many people, especially in the South, she went by her middle name, Gail — except for one listing: the obit placed in The News & Observer of Raleigh.
The News & Observer also was the only one that had a completely web-based system for placing the ad. It was easy and seamless. Every other place had me e-mail in the information, and they called me back to get credit card information. Not bad, but not seamless.
One day, probably in the not-too-distant future, someone is going to combine something like the N&O’s online obit-submission system with a cheap price, and at that point, newspapers will hear another nail pounded in the coffin of their revenue model. For instance, why not a TV station? TV has geographic market presence — which I’m not convinced is even necessary nowadays — and this is revenue TV stations don’t now get, so a low-cost, web-only model is nothing but a plus to them. Or some newspaper company, like the N&O’s McClatchy, might decide, “Hey, why don’t we roll out this web-based obit system as a national thing, like Craigslist, and not just limit ourselves to where we have a building?”
When the day comes that someone actually does this, newspaper executives won’t be able to say no one saw it coming or tried to warn them.
5/21 UPDATE: Through Twitter, legacy.com noticed my complaints and addressed its end of them, so her obits now appear online as Gail Lucas, and the guest books have been combined.