The Death of Obits

The Lakeland, Fla., Ledger has announced to readers that the number of news inches an obituary receives in the paper will henceforth be determined by the surviving family members’ willingness to reveal cause of death. No cause of death, no extended obit (though the paper will still run an abbreviated one). There seems to be some dispute as to whether the Ledger is doing this to improve the journalistic quality of its obituaries or to increase the number of paid death notices submitted to its advertising department. (In a paid death notice, of course, the family of the deceased can say whatever it likes.) But the Ledger’s approach is certainly preferable to that of most newspapers serving small- to medium-sized populations, which in recent years have been more straightforwardly replacing news stories about people who croak with advertisements about people who croak. (This doesn’t come up at big-city newspapers, because there’s no way to run news stories about more than a tiny proportion of the local deaths. At the New York Times, unless you’re truly eminent or have a very well-placed friend, you can forget about rating an obit. Granted, if that’s even within the realm of possibility, it’s the least of your problems.)

The displacement of news stories about dead people with what are essentially glorified classified ads about dead people is a macabre twist on the con by which TV broadcasters devote less and less air time to political candidates on news broadcasts (what politicians, somewhat self-servingly, call “earned media”) at the same time that they devote more and more air time to political candidates in commercials (“paid media”). In the case of newspaper obits, displacing news with ads is an especially canny (if appalling) way to turn lemons into lemonade. Newspaper circulations falling as that segment of the population dies off that is most willing to smudge its fingers with newsprint? Make their deaths into a profit center!

When Chatterbox investigated this subject a few years ago for U.S. News & World Report, he found a variety of creepy practices. The Grand Junction, Colo., Daily Sentinel was charging $12 an inch for death notices, and $24 for photos. You could still get a news obit free, but only a short one (unless, presumably, you were actually famous). One classified ad director argued to Chatterbox that the switch from news obits to paid death notices levelled the playing field between people perceived to be newsworthy and people who were not. It was the market stepping in where the imperious whims of newspaper editors had failed. But that argument would have been more compelling had the trend toward paid death notices occurred spontaneously, as opposed to being forced on consumers by the shrinking news obit hole.

Chatterbox thinks the death of the just-folks obit has the potential to become a significant issue for the baby boom generation. We’re narcissistic, clannish, and just starting to die off. True, a lot of us don’t read newspapers. But, we might argue, many more of us would read newspapers if newspapers catered more assiduously to our growing interest in morbidity. Why not expand obits to three or four pages? Why not obituary sections? This can certainly be justified on news grounds. A larger proportion of the population will be perishing as the demographic pig advances inexorably toward the python’s tail. Doesn’t that trend deserve at least as much attention as coonskin caps in the ‘50s and LSD in the ‘60s? Come to think of it, more obituary pages would mean more space for paid death notices, too, so this might actually be a way to reverse the great newspaper-circulation slide and beef up ad pages at the same time.