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Obituary policy a mistake we've learned from.

Byline: Dave Baker For The Register-Guard

You know that feeling when you're pretty sure you're about to take the wrong path, but you veer off anyway?

The Register-Guard recently went down that road. Last month we changed our obituary policy, scaling back and eliminating photos from standard news obits.

The public's response was swift and forceful. Editors, me in particular, have been broadsided by widespread community disdain.

Editor and publisher Tony Baker's response was swift as well. He reversed the policy decision after only six weeks. Photographs will begin appearing again with news obituaries on Tuesday. We also will restore some information previously allowed in standard obits.

Many readers were incensed that we would reduce a local person's obituary to a few short paragraphs and include photographs only in paid "tribute" ads.

They called the change in policy "heartless," "disrespectful" and "mercenary." Several threatened to cancel their subscriptions.

But it wasn't the number of complaints or the vitriolic tone of some of them that drove the point home. It was the realization that the change in policy was simply a bad business decision.

Yes, it's true that the new policy appeared financially smart in the short run. We saved on news space and increased the potential for sales of paid obituaries.

But it would have been an unwise course in the long run. That's because the most important ingredient of the product we sell is local news. What readers have been telling us for the past several weeks is that obituaries - including the crucial information that comes in the form of a photograph of the deceased - exemplify what local news is all about.

These brief news stories recognize the lives of our friends, neighbors and acquaintances. The only time many local residents are mentioned in the newspaper is when they die.

So, you might ask, what were we thinking when we came up with the idea to mess with the news obituaries?

In one sense, we were simply following the pack. You won't find many newspapers our size or bigger that still provide news obituaries complete with photographs. It's considered too expensive.

Interestingly enough, The Register-Guard has been publishing what we refer to as "family-request" obits only since 1992. Before then, most obituaries were handled as classified ads.

It's not so much the cost of the news space that drives most publishers to limit their news obituaries, although newsprint is one of a newspaper's biggest expenses. It has more to do with the potential to sell obituaries to those who can afford them.

It's likely that a number of local residents will continue to opt for the paid obituary in this newspaper. As you may have noticed lately, the paid option has already become very popular. Many people want more space - and a larger photo - to pay tribute to their loved ones. And they don't want to be limited by news style or length.

Of course, news decisions have to be made independent of advertising concerns. If you're buying an advertisement, you expect to have some say about its content and size - and to pay more if you want more. Not so with news. The decision to run an obituary and photo for every family that makes a request is a journalistic one. It's a statement about the news value of every person's life.

Hundreds of readers have called to complain about the change to the obituaries. The vast majority said it was the loss of photographs that upset them the most. They considered a photograph a crucial part of a news obituary. Without it, they couldn't be sure whether they might have known the deceased. Was that the Mr. Johnson who worked as a clerk at the store for so many years? A photo answers the question. Without it, the story is incomplete.

We went to a lot of trouble to change our obituary policy. Forms had to be adjusted, funeral homes notified and personnel reshuffled. But all of the effort wasn't for naught.

In fact, we learned a great deal from the policy change. Most importantly, we were reminded of the definition of local news and how crucial it is to our mission as a newspaper for the entire community.

Sometimes an ill-advised detour can help restore a newspaper's sense of direction.

Dave Baker (dbaker@guardnet.com) is managing editor of The Register-Guard.
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Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:May 14, 2006
Words:725
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