PUBLISHER'S NOTEBOOK: Our news policies guided
by what is best for readers
Tuesday, December 21, 2010 3:13 AM
The times are a changing and so are newspapers, including this one. One change that has become a popular trend for newspapers is charging families to place obituaries of loved ones. We have resisted that change as we still publish obituaries, along with photos of the deceased, as a free service to residents of our area just like we always have.
Our newspaper is in a minority and I have been asked, and have considered, going with the trend of charging people to publish obituaries in our newspaper. I've never understood why the change happened, except that newspapers, like many industries, have been struggling and this is one way to gain revenue for something that does have a cost, even if the newspaper doesn't recoup it from the family of the deceased.
The lack of a good reason is why I've resisted this change. I'm not against change in general, as I have made many, but I need a justification to do something differently. I know some newspapers are in peril and feel that charging is one way to keep their doors open, but if our newspaper were in such dire straits, I would prefer to find other ways to raise revenue to ensure our survival.
Although sometimes it seems like our newspapers are the only ones publishing obituaries for free, we aren't alone. The concept was a recent discussion, through e-mail, by members of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors and many of the editors explained why their newspaper continues to publish obituaries free of charge.
An editor from Maryland wrote: "Think about the community history that's lost because obits have become ads. Many people's lives have been boiled down to a name, age, hometown and date of funeral - two or three sentences tops. Why? Probably because these families don't have the money to capture their loved one's life. That's a sad delineation and a loss for history. If your paper insists on money for every obit, you'll actually be preventing the community from knowing anything about certain deaths. It will be creating, in effect, a separate system for people with money and those without."
Another editor from New Mexico noted that "we believed, and still do, that the milestones of one's life - birth, marriage, death - deserve complimentary coverage. We often did extensive obits, on both the 'prominent' and not so prominent. Every life has a story."
He also had a personal story as his mother recently died and at that time of grief it seemed heartless to him when one newspaper charged more than $350 for a small obit and a larger daily wanted more than $1,000.
Another editor noted that "people read a paper because, hopefully, the editorial staff is choosing the best stories for their readers, not selling out its services to the highest bidder. A paper serves the reader. The question should always be, how does this serve my reader? Is it a good story? Is it important to the community? Should my readers know this stuff?"
An Arkansas editor said obituaries "are such a part of the news of our small county, that it seems akin to charging to run sports photos or school news. Most obits are for people we knew and loved. It's just a part of the small community experience. We have to help each other as much as we can."
Of course, some newspapers do charge to run school news or other types of news. They don't charge the schools, but rather find sponsors to pay for the news.
That also bothers me. It makes news a commodity to be sold, not information that a newspaper publishes because it is important to readers. The content is dictated by the institution and the timing is dictated by finding the sponsors willing to pay for its publication.
Sure, we publish advertiser-supported salutes to sports and academic teams, but we provide school, church and other community news throughout the year that is edited to our guidelines and published in a timely manner so that the public can keep informed about community happenings. That makes the priority or our news geared toward the readers, not toward advertisers providing a new revenue stream for us.
Not all weekly newspaper editors agree. Some do charge for obituaries. Others have exceptions. For example, one newspaper only provides free coverage of deaths if the person is local. However, there are times when interpretation of local is questioned. His newspaper doesn't provide a paid option, it just doesn't run the obituary unless it is of a local person.
Others have modified policies. For example, one newspaper charges its normal advertising rates only if the family insists on having specific wording, rather than edited to the paper's news style, which is the case for free obituaries.
A more extensive system was set up by a Wisconsin newspaper. It had a lot of disgruntled families that didn't like the editing to conform to standard news style, so it adopted a three tier format that provided free obituaries written in standard news style, a paid tier to allow some add-on features and another paid tier that allows wording exactly as the family wants it.
It isn't just obituaries or certain sponsored news that is paid. Some daily newspapers now charge for wedding announcements, engagements and anniversaries. They still have the look and feel of news items, but are now paid by the people wanting this news published.
The problem with this is that I still like to see a clear difference between paid advertising and news. In our newspapers, when people see news, they know it is not paid for by anyone, whether it is an obituary, an anniversary or an announcement of a new business.
That doesn't mean people can submit whatever they want and we will publish it for free. We do have guidelines and standards. A story on a new business opening is news. Information on a business sale is generally advertising unless editors feel there is some newsworthy component to the sale. And we like to see thank you wording in our paid thank you notices.
It may be an "old school" approach, but we still think our readers are our top priority and I don't see that changing with the times, at least not in the foreseeable future and not without a good reason. Now, that doesn't mean we won't continue to innovate, but our guiding principal will focus on what is best for our readers; after all, they are truly the ones that ensure our survival.