The not-so-hidden costs of paid obituaries

Herb Strentz: Treating obituaries as news cemented ties between the newspaper and the community, and was great training for young reporters.

People may pay from hundreds to thousands of dollars these days to have loved ones' obituaries published in local newspapers. But few if any ponder the impact “paid obits” have had on the newsroom.

As an old man (83) who grew up in a newsroom that routinely ran an obit as a news story, and published obits on everyone who died in town, I want to share some costs of today's approach to obituaries.

The town was Fresno, California, which in the early 1960s had a population of about 135,000. With a circulation in the 150,000 range, the Fresno Bee reached readers throughout the San Joaquin Valley, from Merced County in the north to Kern County in the South.

The Bee was part of a chain owned by the McClatchy family. The McClatchys were kind of a Cowles family of central California, but without the joie de vivre of Mike Cowles in Des Moines or the international perspective and earnestness of brother John in Minneapolis.

The Bee newspapers covered local government vigorously. Any meeting of a city or county agency or commission was covered in person. If the city council were to drive over to inspect something, city hall reporter Ed Clough might phone the city desk to send another reporter to sit with the council members in the second car, while Ed rode in the first, just to monitor the council!

(This was before the onset of freedom of information laws. None were needed, because the paper demanded openness in government affairs.)

The Bee paid the same kind of attention to obits.

A “dead board” in the newsroom carried notices from the several funeral homes in Fresno. As time allowed, a reporter would take a notice from the clip board, phone the family of the deceased to verify the funeral home information, and get needed biographical background for the story.

A reporter might write a hundred, two hundred, or more obits in the course of a year. That practice, in treating obits as news, cemented ties between the newspaper and the community, and was great training for young reporters.

One might understandably think that phoning the relatives at times of grief was intrusive or rude. One experienced reporter, new to the staff, initially viewed phoning the family as “barbaric.”

But almost always, the relative you talked with appreciated the call, that The Bee was thoughtful enough to care about the departed mother, father, husband, wife, sister, brother, son or daughter. That was a good step in making “the paper” into “my paper.”

News media can spend thousands of dollars in promotional programs and efforts to gain or retain a news audience, but such efforts can’t match being with a family, even in such perfunctory ways as doing an obit on a loved one.

(At the Des Moines Register in those days, reporter Nick Lamberto was well-regarded for his ability to deal with families in times of grief. And few if any counties are blessed with a medical examiner or coroner as sensitive and as caring as Polk County’s R.C. Wooters was.)

So one cost of moving to paid obituaries is weakening the newspaper's bond to the community.

Another is a loss of learning among young reporters.

Look, if you know families will likely keep what you're writing in scrapbooks, or laminate the piece to preserve it as part of the family's history, you will feel intense pressure to get the details right. A mistake in an obit cannot be remedied with an apology or a brief correction in the next day’s paper. Sometimes, the phone call to the family alerted the reporter to an error in the funeral home's notice.

Further, writing obituaries forced reporters to work through the stress of asking the family about the deceased person’s life. That experience helped them become more persistent when a public official was hesitant to answer a question that was far less intrusive, related to some other story.

Finally, when you have to summarize a person’s life in about five or six column inches—talk about the need for tight writing!

So obituaries are good practice for all journalists, but particularly so for less experienced reporters. The task drives home the importance of accuracy and the need to ask questions in tough times.

You also learn how fragile life is.

Since The Bee published every day, that included Christmas.

When I worked one holiday shift, the “dead board” included a young man who on Christmas Eve day had left his wife and their infant child to buy some milk for the baby. I ended up talking with the young widow after her husband was hit and killed by a drunk driver.

That obit from the early 1960s still resonated with me years later, when I was a university administrator and my department or school was again subjected to some “strategic planning.”

Calls to mind the Public Enemy album, based on a Yiddish proverb: Man Plans, God Laughs.

Doing obits puts you into life and death situations, far more than rewriting press releases and the like.

When the Des Moines Register moved to paid obits starting March 11, 2003, then editor Paul Anger assured readers in a February 28 announcement, “Families and funeral homes will continue to receive caring attention from the Register.” (He left the paper to go to the Detroit Free Press in 2005.)

Contrary to Paul’s hopes, nowadays the handling of paid obits is at the corporate or Gannett level. When I phoned about a paid obit for the paper, it was handled acceptably. But the first question I was asked was, “And what paper do you want the obituary to appear in?”

Just another cost of going the paid obit route.

Herb Strentz was dean of the Drake School of Journalism from 1975 to 1988 and professor there until retirement in 2004. He was executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council from its founding in 1976 to 2000.

Photo of candles by boomkee2532 available via Shutterstock.

  • Working the beat...

    Herb, I so agree about the value of a young or inexperienced reporter writing obituaries. This type of 'chore' can be a great example of why it's important to get all the details rights. The ability to pay attention to the answers given, in a fashion to lead one to the next unexpected but pertinent question, is a basic lesson for journalism. I appreciated the background of your time in California..and the McClatchey connection.

  • I remember the old newspaper obituaries...

    ...and I still miss them. Another small cost of the change to paid obits is that readers of newspaper obits can no longer count on standard information. I've read obits in recent years that left out birth dates, death dates, spouse names, any mention of any location, any mention of any kind of work or hobby, etc. The extra color provided by family-written obits is interesting and often fun, but basic information is still what many of us obit readers want.

    And I've told a couple of relatives that when I die, I would like to die. I would rather not pass, join a deity in heaven, enter eternal glory, depart this life, or be ushered into the presence of a higher power. If "died" was good enough for the old newspaper obits, it's good enough for me. Saves a little money, too:-).

  • Cause of death now not routinely included in obits

    Obituaries written in the Des Moines Register & Tribune newsrooms (and other newsrooms) used to include a specific cause of death. This detail often made families angry, particularly if it was a suicide. But it was an important public service. I believe the opioid crisis would have registered in the public consciousness much earlier if all the obituaries of its young victims had given an accurate cause of death.
    I can still hear Tribune assistant city editor Bill Kong berating us that “heart failure,” the cause of death favored by tight-lipped funeral homes, was not sufficient. “Everybody dies of heart failure!” he would yell.

    • Thanks for comments

      The thoughts from Allison and others are much appreciated. I expect that's true, too, for others in Laura Belin's Bleeding Heartland community. I had wondered if the piece was worth doing given the personal aspects, which sometimes turn me off in other's work. But the thoughtful comments and others I've received covered material I had thought of mentioning, but didn't because of length or personal nature— except for Bill Kong's newsroom banter, a delightful addition and a reward for those checking the comments and a great memory of the old days...
      Thanks to all, Herb Strentz

    • Across the nation, the causes of deaths as stated in obits...

      ...took on special significance during the early years of AIDS, when no effective treatments were available and AIDS was quickly killing so many gay men. The obits, even in large cities where more accepting attitudes might have been expected, often attributed the deaths to immune-system-breakdown diseases or "a long illness," rather than AIDS itself. And your comment was a good reminder that this avoidance of reality via obituaries probably helped to delay the recognition of AIDS as a national public health crisis.

  • Amen

    Good point about obits being a part of the development of a young journalist. I recall a particularly trying day during an internship at the Milwaukee Journal working the obit desk. Milwaukee is full of good folks of eastern European descent whose last names have about two dozen letters, and the listing of survivors in a traditional Catholic family can be longer than the Gettysburg Address. After such a day I had learned more about attention detail, and also was glad I was in a city with a bar on every corner.

    More to the point, the daily visits by folks from funeral homes to drop off notices often was an early alert that a prominent person had just died or was about to expire, so reporters could get to work on the story. When I returned to the Register in 2007, such early warning system was no longer in place. I recall a particularly dismal Saturday when I learned that a former Speaker of the Iowa House and later State Treasurer had died the previous Wednesday and the paper still hadn't published an obit or story. That was bad.

    Dan Piller
    Des Moines Register, ret.

  • O! Obituaries!

    Obituaries were worth reading when the Register (and Tribune) employed people who were part of the community and its citizens. Seems like today's Gannett Register employees are more about getting their stories done thus enabling them to focus more on their next career move within the Gannett family of newspapers -- so obituaries end up on no one's priority list. Families in turn pay for the space to write and the results are mostly crazy. Like PrairieFan, I'm not planning to go into someone's arms or to some place called eternal rest.

    Check out the Register and Tribune archives -- well-written, always interesting, always very local.

  • Journalism can still breathe life into a community

    'Alt' or next generation journalism as practiced by members of the Iowa's Writer's Collaborative, among others, may not revive free obits. New journalism (like Cullin, Belin, Burns, Pillar or Strentz) adjusting to our needs for immediate news may yet revive life into a community and individuals' and family connectedness with society. They all make news come alive for me.
    All good things.

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