Publishing obituaries that tell the whole story
December 20, 2007
When you get the middle seat on the airplane, you’ll do anything to keep yourself distracted from thighs and elbows coming at you from both directions.
And that’s how I found myself reading a copy of Editors and Publishers magazine, cover to cover, on a Thanksgiving flight to Dallas.
Trade publications like that one are full of minutia that would only be interesting to someone in the profession.
There was an article about how to use trademarks correctly. For example, the plural of Oreo is Oreo cookies, not Oreos, and the word “Dumpster” is a trademark and should be capitalized.
There were pages about the stock prices of various newspaper chains and a story about the rising number of free dailies in the United States ” a trend that you are experiencing firsthand.
But the article that I found most interesting was the closing page essay titled, “The pitfalls of paid obits.”
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For many newspapers, charging for obituaries has become a profitable source of income. Papers charge by the word or the line, and depending on the size of the newspaper and the amount of information you want to share about your loved one, you can spend nearly $1,000 for a small square of ink and paper.
The magazine essay focused on the amusing grammar mistakes that end up in an obituary that you can’t edit out because someone is paying for every word.
But I think the author missed the point.
The true pitfall of the paid obituary is that it undermines the purpose of a newspaper.
Ask any researcher. Newspapers are where history is recorded. Birth, marriage, death and everything in between are captured and archived for generations.
If newspapers are truly to be a mirror for the community, then they should never become a place where only those who can afford it are included in the permanent record.
When I took over as the editor of the newspapers in Grand County, I made a lot of changes. But one thing I didn’t change was the way obituaries are published.
And because you have always had them this way ” published for free and in full ” you may not appreciate what a unique gift it is to share the life of a passing loved one in this way in the newspaper.
Before I moved to Grand County, I was the editor of a newspaper in Arizona, in a town where more than 60 percent of the population is retired.
In every edition, we had a rather full obituary page.
Those obituaries were free, but they were kept to a certain length and were edited under a strict set of guidelines.
People did not “pass away” or “go to be with the Lord.” They “died.”
We included facts, but not sentiment. As part of the free obit, you could tell the world that the deceased worked as a plumber, but if you wanted to say that they were a kind person who would be missed by many, you had to purchase a memorial ad.
During my time at that paper, I dragged my mouse across the lives of so many people. And, with a click, erased whole chapters of their lives.
But here in Grand County, the population is small enough and the demographic is young enough that we only publish about 60 obituaries a year. And that gives us some freedom.
These past months, I’ve taken quiet pleasure in publishing the lengthy and sentiment-filled obituaries. I don’t crop the photos to show just the face, but publish the entire photo, complete with pets, grandkids and spouses.
And, while I have cut here and there when an obituary takes up an entire page, I’ve left most life stories exactly as they were written ” leaving in all the things that really matter.
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