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Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Ethics Toolbox

Free, not fee, for obits

By Andy Schotz

Jeremiah Charles Overbaugh met the woman he’d marry while inspecting chickens at a hatchery.

As a single parent, Marlene Plant got her driver’s license when she was in her 40s and later beat cancer.

Ann Mary Roberts had six best friends: her dogs Quigley, Sadie and Shamrock and her cats Hootie, Miss Kitty and Sweetie Man.

The first time George Van Etten visited the farm he later tended for decades, it was 1959, riding in a Model T. “We went putt, putt, putt up the hill to God’s country, God being the only one that wanted it,” his wife recalled.

Those are pieces of people’s lives, emerging in their obituaries. Sadly, in communities across the country, those rich details are disappearing, if they’re not already gone.

Many newspapers have turned obituaries — poignant, homey, treasured sources of news — into advertisements. It now costs money for families to report the story of a relative’s death, which will be of interest — news — to someone picking up the paper.

For a while, my current newspaper, a community daily, had two types of obits. The standard style, which was free, included nuts-and-bolts biographical information, such as date of birth, parents, survivors and occupation. For a fee, families, through funeral homes, could submit a custom obit with more information, sometimes written in the family’s own words.

Our standard obit has been boiled down. It’s only a few sentences now, enough to tell people who died and when the services will be.

This trend isn’t brand new. I don’t know when most newspapers started charging to run obits, but it’s been several years, at least.

My newspaper, though, was still allowing free obits after other papers in our market had stopped.

I’m observing from the news side of journalism. I don’t envy those on the business side battling to keep our operations going. I also don’t know of any great backlash over this monetization (what an ugly word) of death, so maybe the transition is happening smoothly.

My newspaper is still flush with obituaries. I assume the fee is treated as a small part of the cost of a funeral and burial. Nonetheless, I see a loss of history. I’d hate to think we’re documenting only the lives of people whose families can pay for the privilege.

Community news is more than the sum of staff-written stories. Local newspapers print milestones about people who live among us — their announcements of marriage, academic success and military deployment.

News organizations have an ethical obligation to cover our communities as fully as we can.

Maybe executives see charging for obituaries and wedding announcements as a chance to recover what had been free advertising. I disagree. I think we’ve drawn a new line and are now setting a fee for news.

I’ve already seen one side effect that hurts our own news-gathering.

Sometimes, when I needed to get in touch with a family for a story, I found an obituary in our archives that gave me the names of relatives I could call. We’re slowly losing that, too.

I remember an effusive letter from a genealogist, who said the amount of date-specific information in my newspaper’s obits was gold to people who rely on those facts for family research. So, there’s another group that loses as newspapers mine for revenue.

It’s said that the only two times many people will end up in the newspaper is when they’re born and when they die. Maybe birth announcements could be the next source to tap. Instead of column inches, we could charge by the baby’s length. Or weight.

Overbaugh, Plant, Roberts and Van Etten — who I mentioned above — all lived in upstate New York’s Capital Region. The colorful tidbits about them came from their recent obits in my former newspaper, The Altamont Enterprise, a weekly.

The Enterprise, where I was a reporter and editor, prints all obits free of charge. Not only that, but staffers try to interview family or friends to make each obit as full a story as possible. Funeral homes gave us the name and phone number of the relative most willing to talk to us. Or the funeral home would tip us off that no one in the family felt up to being interviewed, which was fine, too.

In so many places, business pressure is chipping away at the space, time and staffing devoted to news.

But not Altamont, N.Y.

Long live the free obit. Long live history.

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