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Some publishers charge to print vital statistics that used to be a community service.

by Julius Duscha

Is death the subject for news stories, or should it be considered an advertising revenue source? And what about engagements, marriages, anniversaries -- and, yes, divorces? Are they news or money-makers? And do births fall into the news or advertising category?

These questions are being debated more and more in newsrooms and newspaper business offices -- and more often than not, the winner seems to be on the business side. Vital statistics -- as these life and death matters used to be called, and compiled in daily news columns under that heading -- no longer appear to be so vital to many papers, large and small, except as vital sources of revenue.

The trend is decried by critics of the press, such as newspaper consultant John Morton, who depicts the trend as "the everlasting pursuit of profits striking at the heart of community news," and old-fashioned editors like Ted Natt of the 24,000-circulation evening Daily News of Longview, Wash., who contends that "running this kind of material free is part of being a citizen of your community."

But even such a journalism stalwart as Edward Seaton, the immediate past president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, is experimenting with change. His 11,000-circulation evening Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury has begun charging for obituaries in his news columns that go beyond the basic facts of name, age, place and cause of death, the immediate survivors and funeral arrangements.

"We're experimenting with it, with some reservations," Seaton notes. "It's kind of sticky. There are certainly ethical issues involved in mixing paid-for information and a news story."

While Seaton has begun charging for printing detailed information in an obituary in his flagship paper, it and his other five papers in Kansas and Nebraska continue to publish free obituaries and announcements of engagements and weddings, often with pictures. Wedding anniversaries are also noted in news columns. Divorces and births are not run, out of consideration for the divorced couple and, in the case of births, because of kidnapping fears.

At the highly respected, independently owned 67,000-circulation Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the policy Seaton is experimenting with has been in place for 10 years.

"We have no regrets," says Managing Editor Mark Bowden. "I would rather interview a murder suspect than some survivors for an obit -- what with problems today of blended families, family feuds and falsified military careers. People often want to use obituaries to right past wrongs."

Like the Seaton papers, the Gazette does not charge for engagement, wedding, anniversary or birth announcements. And it does list divorces.

'OBITS ARE WELL READ'

At the other end of the spectrum is Florida's 359,000-circulation St. Petersburg Times, also an independent paper.

"I guess we are way on the old-fashioned side," says Andrew Barnes, president and editor of the Times. "I'm constantly trying to get us to run more obits. They are very well read." The obituaries run in the Times' 13 zone sections, as do engagements, marriages, anniversaries, divorces and births -- as well as home sales and prices. "Every so often the advertising department tries to push me to charge for such news, but they really know that I don't want that."

Neither the Newspaper Association of America nor the National Newspaper Association keeps statistics on free versus paid vital statistics. But editors, publishers and classified advertising directors all say that the trend for the paid announcements is increasing.

Nor is there any clear pattern within papers. Some that charge for extended obituaries are continuing to provide free space for engagements and weddings, or vice versa. Papers charging for obituary material beyond the basics often run a notice such as the one that appears in The Gazette: "Other obituary materials, including additional survivors, employment, education, military service, civic and social activities, accomplishments, special interests and hobbies, friends, pets, memories and eulogies will be published for 35 cents per word."

In some papers, a page of paid wedding announcements will include only a rather ambiguous note to call the paper for further information about the page. Other papers are stirring up interest in engagement and wedding news with imaginative features.

The 356,000-circulation Oregonian of Portland, Ore., started a "Popping the Question" feature three years ago, seeking interesting ways in which a man or woman asks the marriage question, such as writing, "Will you marry me?" on the bottom of the swimming pool or tying an engagement ring to the end of a fishing line.

The 1.1 million-circulation New York Times runs a weekly feature called "Vows" which describes an especially interesting couple and wedding. A recent example is the marriage of Elizabeth Sheed, a daughter of the novelist Wilfrid Sheed, and photographer Robert Baldridge, whose subjects have ranged from the Dalai Lama to Spike Lee. The "Vows" wedding pieces have been expanded and published in book form.

In a cyber twist on an old idea, the 46,000-circulation Santa Barbara (Calif.) News-Press is offering personal web sites on the Internet. "Announce your engagement," the paper suggests, "share the date, time and location of your ceremony and reception ... even RSVP on-line." The cost of a personal site ranges from $295 to $1500, depending upon the amount of information and number of pictures.

And the Internet is no stranger to obituaries. The many papers that post obituaries on-line report that, like printed obit pages, they are one of the best read parts of their sites.

DICHOTOMY OF PREFERENCES

Arnold Rosenfeld, editor-in-chief of Cox Newspapers of Atlanta, sees the trend of looking at vital statistics as a profit center as just one more example of the way newspapers have been moving away from news features that readers like, but that editors consider trivial or unsophisticated.

"I remember when I was a copy reader how we used to groan when we had to read and put a headline on an Edgar Guest poetry column," Rosenfeld says, "but readers loved it." He also recalls as an editor killing the "joke of the day," which readers also loved, and finding reader-written and reader-friendly poetry in 50- or 70-year-old newspaper files, a feature he thought could be run today.

Some large papers, such as the 809,000-circulation Washington Post, 433,000-circulation Atlanta Journal-Constitution and 159,000-circulation Des Moines Register, still run a daily page or more of free obituaries, describing the lives of the important and the humble alike in their circulation areas. But the 284,000-circulation Kansas City Star charges for more than the essential details of a death and funeral arrangements. And the New York Times still runs extended obituaries of the famous.

Most newspaper groups do not have fixed policies toward free or paid vital statistics. They leave it up to the individual editors and publishers to decide whether to turn the information into a revenue source. Sometimes the changeover from free to partially paid obits goes easily; other times the move creates problems.

Joseph Richter, editor of Ottaway Newspapers of Campbell Hall, N.Y., which are part of Dow Jones & Co. and have a median circulation of 30,000, points out that when Ottaway's 26,000-circulation Daily Item in Sunbury, Pa., changed to the partial-paid system, all went smoothly. But when the group's 34,000-circulation Joplin (Mo.) Globe tried to do the same thing, a storm arose among readers. A delegation of three women presented Editor Daniel Chiodo with a protest petition carrying 4200 signatures.

The paper stayed with its policy change. "We like the revenue," Chiodo says, "and people like to be able to put information into an obituary the way they want it instead of having to conform to rigid rules."

A survey of some newspapers in the New York Times Regional Group shows how policies differ in approaching vital statistics today. The 26,000-circulation Gadsden (Ala.) Times has been charging for obits for years. It runs free wedding and engagement announcements but charges for pictures with them.

In Louisiana, the 20,000-circulation evening Courier in Houma is considering moving from free to paid wedding and engagement announcements and obits. In Opelousas, the 12,000-circulation evening Daily World charges for wedding photos but not for stories of weddings or engagements. The first eight lines of an obituary are free; each additional word costs 85 cents.

The 38,000-circulation Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News charges a flat fee for obits while wedding and engagement notices are free. The same policies are followed by the 12,000-circulation evening Daily News in Palatka, Fla., the 58,000-circulation Herald-Journal in Spartanburg, S.C., and the 9,000-circulation evening Lake City (Fla.) Reporter. But neither the 81,000-circulation Ledger in Lakeland, Fla., nor the 118,000-circulation Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune charges for obits or wedding and engagement notices.

NO TWO POLICIES ALIKE

Anomalies abound.

In Alabama, for example, two papers with almost identical circulations have vastly different policies.

Brandt Ayers, editor and publisher of the independent 28,000-circulation Anniston Star is proud of the way his paper runs a list of deaths daily on the front page and provides space for eight to 10 free news obits a day, some of them running 12 inches in length. The paper also devotes news space to engagement notices, wedding announcements with pictures and 50th wedding anniversary stories with before and after photos.

In Florence, Kathy Silverberg, executive editor of the 33,000-circulation Times Daily, another New York Times Regional Group paper, just as strongly defends her paper's paid obituary policy, which was instituted four years ago. "Sure, we've made money," she says, "but we also give families a chance to say what they want. Admittedly, there is a down side. It can be said we're taking advantage of people at the saddest time of their lives, that we're trying to profit from death."

An average obit costs $50 to $60, Silverberg says; some run to $125. A photo costs $10 to $25, depending on size. But wedding and marriage announcements continue to run for free.

Two contrasting ways of helping to keep close contact with the community a newspaper serves are offered by the Daily News in Longview and The Gazette in Cedar Rapids. In addition to running free obits, engagement and wedding announcements (with photos), the Daily News publishes pictures of the graduating classes from the 13 high schools in its circulation area. In Iowa, The Gazette has a weekly, 12-to-24-page "milestones" tab which includes free engagement, wedding and anniversary announcements (photos cost $10 to $40 and extended notices 40 cents a word).

In addition, about half the section is filled with pictures under the headings of "A Day to Remember" (mostly birthdays), "New Arrivals" (births), "Thank You," "A Job Well Done," "Graduates" and "In Honor of Those Who've Served" (military veterans). These cost 40 cents a word and $10 to $40 for pictures. "People love that section," says Managing Editor Bowden. "And some weeks we run as many as 250 photos in it, and no one seems to mind paying a little bit."

But concepts of news and newspapers will keep changing, as does the world itself. As Editor Seaton mused about obituaries and other vital statistics -- and the wisdom of charging for them -- he recalled the practices of another era.

"We used to meet the trains twice a day, see who is going away or coming to town -- but, of course, we don't do that anymore."
COPYRIGHT 1999 The Cole Group
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Comment:Some publishers charge to print vital statistics that used to be a community service.
Publication:NewsInc
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 5, 1999
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