Obituaries give life to community papers

The grim reaper who has swung his scythe at community newspapers may turn out to be their savior.

The end-of-life accounts are providing an unexpected source of revenues, which helps to offset the loss of newspaper advertising and subscription revenue. Paid obituaries are flourishing at papers large and small.

Back in the day when I broke in as a reporter on the Minneapolis Tribune many moons ago, obituaries were considered news, so they were free.

The copy editors delighted in finding grammar or punctuation errors in the copy of cub reporters. The obits had to be letter perfect. The reporters wrote the end-of-life stories using just the facts; no embellishments or flowery language. The reports were generally short.

Desperate for revenues, publisher light bulbs went on. Why not charge for placing family-written obits on their pages?

The trade-off came in how the obits were written. Family members, with help mortuaries, take great care in crafting stories about their departed relatives. They write in a positive, respectful and loving light.

That takes a lot of words, which is good for papers since they generally charge by the column inch. The longer the better for the bottom line.

Obituaries in Wisconsin often call out the love of the departed for family, friends, even pets, the great outdoors, family gatherings at the cabin up north and watching and cheering for the Green Bay Packers.

The Sunday papers are carrying as many as 10 pages of obits. Community papers carry three or four. That’s the kind of space that grocery stores once purchased.

The death notices are one of several possible answers for saving the papers. But there are others as the owners search for new business models.

One of the latest is turning their for-profit enterprises into non-profit corporations.
Like for-profit enterprises, non-profits still have to make an annual surplus; not paying taxes is immaterial, because they seldom have significant profits. The big deal in the conversion is they can accept donations.

That may appeal to donors who want to keep the local paper alive and can use deductions.

Another path to salvation will, of course, be the sale of digital news and advertising. Every paper has launched a web version of its publication, but with mixed success. Several national papers are making money with their Internet products, such as the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, but it’s been less successful at the local level.

Nonetheless, the high cost of newsprint and delivery of a physical product almost mandate a continued shift to on-line delivery.

The main tactics deployed by newspaper chains to stay alive has been:
• Slashing costs, including newsrooms that are one-third of their former ranks.
• Consolidation of ownership, which leads to more cutting of overhead costs.
• Raising subscription prices sharply, while delivering a skinnier product. Does that compute?

The latter tactic produces a downward spiral. Publishers raise subscription prices, now at $400 to $$600 per year for a daily paper. The high prices cause more subscribers to drop the paper. The publishers, needing revenue to survive, raise prices again.
Could that negative spiral be reversed if there were a sense that the community owned the paper? It’s possible.

Bless the entrepreneurial publishers who are working to find a business model that works for community papers.

The paid obituaries are helping. It’s a recurring source of revenue.

I like reading obituaries. And so do many people I know. They tell stories. They are like mini-biographies.

Partly because they can be clipped and saved, unlike a digital version, they are here to stay. Further, grieving families aren’t too worried about costs.

So, publishers, how about paid marriage announcements with short bios on the bride and room and how they got together? I would read about love stories, too.

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