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Are free obits and wedding announcements antiquated?

by David M. Cole

"A man deserves to have his name in the newspaper at least three times -- when he's born, when he marries and when he dies." So said the first newspaper editor I ever met, and since this was uttered in the mid-'60s by a man in his mid-60s, the sexism can be forgiven.

But the real question is whether the rest of the sentiment -- that a newspaper is obligated by community service to print what has traditionally been called "vital statistics" -- still pertains today. Inside, Correspondent Julius Duscha takes a look at a variety of newspapers -- big and small -- that have adopted policies where readers pay to have certain vital information printed.

Though I'm always interested in hearing about new revenue streams for newspapers, I don't know that I'm too happy about the notion of charging for wedding announcements or obituaries.

The art of obituary writing is waning at American newspapers and it is something that currently needs cultivation. Far too frequently, city editors put the most inexperienced reporters on the obit detail -- and the obits read like it.

I just went to the web site of a California newspaper that I won't name and found this little nugget in an otherwise barren obit: "His interests included raising homing pigeons, hunting and fishing. While stationed in Okinawa he played saxophone in an Air Force band. Mr. Smith was a past member of the Kiwanis Club."

There must have been some interesting stories about Mr. Smith's saxophone days in Okinawa. A good writer could craft a great obituary from just that sentence; the reporter for this California paper tossed it off with pigeons and Kiwanis.

Now, I will admit that in many small community papers, the dozen or so deaths that happen in a given day may not all have small brilliant stories to tell (there were a dozen obits I reviewed on that California newspaper web site and I only found one potential nugget). And, as Duscha cites, interviewing a family in today's world of multiple marriages can be difficult -- not to mention the pets. People always want a paragraph or two about the deceased's pets (I doubt that Miss Kitty will read my obit and appreciate her mention).

Nonetheless, I think a newspaper should make an effort to provide good obituaries; put the best writer on them and give them space.

Maybe I'm morbid, but I enjoy reading obits -- and more than one readership survey indicates that many, many other readers find them fascinating as well. Why don't newspapers invest more time and effort in obits? Duscha touches on the topic when he interviews Cox Newspapers' Arnold Rosenfeld, who seems to have as good a historical rear-view mirror as I do. Rosenfeld hints that editors' tastes are just out-of-touch with readers' tastes.

Are certain features banished from the paper because editors think they are passé when readers still love them? Are we doing a disservice to readers by turning that function over to family members? Under this scenario, would only the wealthy get a good obituary?

These are troubling questions. Newspapers should seriously evaluate whether the small amount of income from extensive paid obituaries (or any other paid vital statistics information) compensates for the lost credibility of being the community's voice of record.

When more than 90 percent of U.S. communities have only one newspaper, is it not the responsibility of that newspaper to record the important events of that community? And not to charge for it?

Therein, I guess, lies the main problem. I think I could understand a newspaper not devoting energy to weddings and obits -- every editor has his or her own priorities. What I can't understand is not only turning your back on this key service, but to then charge readers to provide it.

Maybe that newspaper editor of the '60s was deeply rooted in a newspaper era that has long since passed. But maybe it's something we should revive.
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Comment:Are free obits and wedding announcements antiquated?
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 5, 1999
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