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Posts Tagged ‘obituaries’

For the past four years, I have wondered why there has been no equivalent of Craigslist for obituaries. The question was sparked by a post by Steve Buttry in 2010, but it wasn’t until my mother’s death in May 2012 that I learned myself how truly awful – and expensive – the newspaper-based obituary system is. Submitting obituaries is, in many cases, cumbersome and emotionally taxing, exactly the opposite of what people who are placing obituaries need, and the cost of a single obituary in larger newspapers is equivalent to what I spend on my credit card in an entire month.

The difficulty and cost of placing obituaries is pretty much equivalent of some of the reasons people migrated away from newspaper classified ads years ago to free or cheap online listings (and why journalists themselves shifted their own job ads from the expensive Editor & Publisher, which used to be the go-to place to look for a job, to the relatively cheap journalismjobs.com).

Why, I have wondered, had that not happened with obituaries?

Part of it, I am sure, is that having a print obituary still has some emotional value to people. They can hold it, put it in a scrap book, frame it. It’s a tangible link to someone who is no longer there.

Perhaps a bigger part is that people grew up with newspapers being considered the place to announce births, engagements, marriages and deaths. There are people in the city where I live now who have told me that if it weren’t for their desire to see who died, they wouldn’t buy the paper anymore, and I doubt that I am the only editor who has been told such a thing.

Despite all that, I wondered why there was not a cheap online alternative to obituaries.

And then last week, the people behind The Memorial Post sent me a link to a video explaining their cheap online alternative to obituaries. The site itself is not actually functional yet (it has only the video and a field to sign up for email updates), so I can’t say whether it’s as easy as the video makes it appear, but the video paints a picture of a potential Craigslist for obituaries – a site that could siphon away yet another revenue category from newspapers.

An online-only obituary site might not appeal to traditional print readers, but it may seem perfectly reasonable to those raised on the Internet.

My newspaper is in a mostly rural, conservative, very traditional area, yet our website’s metrics tell me that the people coming to our site online may be part of the audience that would be willing to go to an online-only obituary alternative.

More than 60 percent of our online readers are under 35, according to Google Analytics, and only 11 percent are 55 or older.

Our online obituaries have more pageviews than any other page but the homepage, accounting for nearly 15 percent of overall pageviews – and our obits are not fancy, consisting only of the text of each obit, no photos.

In other words, for someone who gets information primarily online, our obits are not a satisfying reader experience.

We are a small publication, so our charge for obituaries is not much more than The Memorial Post’s, but if the Post’s online reader experience lives up to what its video promotes, it is the kind of thing that has serious potential going forward, as fewer of the people placing obituaries will have ever had the newspaper habit.

UPDATE: Via Twitter, ‏@TheMemorialPost says, “We are on schedule for mid-August and the U/X will be unparalleled”

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I got a lot of problems with you people. Too many to list, actually, so some of the big ones:

Pack journalism. Washington, D.C., remains ground zero when making the case for too many people chasing the exact same story, but Newtown, Conn., is the most egregious example of what happens when a big story breaks anywhere else. Why? What was gained by having this many journalists in one place chasing exactly the same thing? Isn’t this why any news organization pays AP?

General unwillingness to challenge traditional beat and story structures. See my previous post and the links there to other sites for more detailed discussion. Staffs are smaller, the world is more linked and mobile than ever, so change is necessary – not just changing what you cover but how you cover it. In many newsrooms, everyone is preoccupied with an urgency to feed the beast. Consider whether you can let the beast go hungry a day or two a week so you can assess whether what you are spooning into it is worthwhile.

Related to the above: story quotas and related mandates. A couple of weeks ago I visited a small newspaper where I was told that staffers are required to file 8-12 stories a week, and that the company requires that the front page be all-local. Eight stories a week is not onerous, in my experience, but as a glance at that paper’s front page made clear, no one was exercising any quality control to ensure that the quota was being filled by solid, well reported stories that people would want to read – probably because the editors were more afraid of not having enough staff-bylined stories to fill the page. Quotas and mandates can have that effect: The staff goes on autopilot, and the product suffers. Manage for quality first.

Also related: general reluctance to engage the community. Our world is full of bloggers, social posting and sharing. Our news is not. Why isn’t that widely acknowledged as a failing?

News websites remain unnavigable. This morning my wife was trying to find something on the site of the local newspaper. Couldn’t do it. I went to Google and found it in seconds. She actually has a better sense of how news sites are organized than the average person because of her exposure to that structure through me – but it’s still a mystery to her. Sites have too many sections, and where stories are listed and how they are tagged may be entirely at the whim of whatever overworked staffer posts them to the website at night. At some sites there is little consistency, or logic. Stories on a race for U.S. Senate, a legislative story, a profile feature and a food story all are tagged as local news? Seriously? Why? Oh, looking at the rest of your stories, I see why: EVERYTHING by your staff is tagged as local news, apparently because your late editor doesn’t want to think about it. And you, the editor, never noticed because who the hell has the time to look at such things? There is a reason your website has a taxonomy in the first place, and it’s not just because the site designer is anal retentive, but if you are tagging everything the same you are nullifying it.

Related to the above: Too many news people have no sense at all of how the industry’s finances work. The next time you see an argument for how many reporters $1 million (or any amount) in paywall revenue could pay for, check to see whether the math includes benefits, insurance, office rent/mortgage, utilities, office supplies, staff expense reimbursement such as mileage … You get the point. You can’t fully participate in an argument over the future of your business if you are ignorant of the business end of the business.

A few grievances that are less about journalism than the practices in the revenue-generating end of the building:

The general unclickability of business transactions related to news websites. Have you tried to place an obituary lately? Or any kind of advertisement? It’s usually an experience straight out of 1990. It is hard to spend money with a newspaper. It’s like you walk up to the building with a wad of money in your hand and can’t find anyone who will extend a hand to take the money from you.

Related to the above: the willingness to charge online readers to read obituaries, which themselves are paid advertisements. Are we so absolutely desperate for any revenue stream at all that we won’t consider the long-term implications of what we are charging for? If you charge the public on the front end to place a type of ad that you know helps you build an audience, and then you charge the public on the back end for the ability to read all of those ads in one place, you are simply begging for someone else to engineer a faster, cheaper, easier way to distribute that kind of ad. There WILL be a craigslist for obituaries, and newspapers don’t seem to care.

That scratches the surface. Looking back over them, I detect some things in common: lack of imagination, too much adherence to tradition, failure to engage new technology, timidity. Happy Festivus. Now, on to the feats of strength …

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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.

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