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The Death of Newspaper Obituaries

   September 2nd, 2010

Newspaper MONEY SectionOne function of public libraries is to be a repository for community history. The extent to which a library can do this will vary, but at the very least, the library has holdings of the local newspaper, which patrons can use to look up obituaries of local residents.

But the reality of this is changing. As newspapers struggle to stay alive, they're exploring new revenue streams - our local paper recently started charging families to list obituaries, instead of providing that service for free. The paper is only published once a week for a town of 32,000 residents, but you can still see the effect below:

Year #/Obits
2000 444
2001 527
2002 523
2003 566
2004 556
2005 479
2006 500
2007 220
2008 215
2009 80
2010 26 (as of Aug.)

And of the 80 obituaries in 2009, only 12 were from June-December. With dramatically fewer obituaries appearing in the paper, the long-term research value of a library's newspaper holdings is diminished. There must be other factors at play too, but hopefully newspaper revenues will stabilize and this downward obituary trend will be reversed. Regardless, there will always at least be a gap for anyone doing genealogical research or just looking up a friend of family member.

And this doesn't seem to be just a local thing. A Slashdot post describes the same thing on a bigger scale. There's also a Boing Boing post that looks into Legacy.com, the company many newspapers are using to outsource obituary listings. The bottom line in both posts is that obituaries and death notices are turning into a cash cow business - and as it becomes more and more expensive to run an obituary, there are going to be fewer and fewer of them.

So, all of that is sad news - doubly so since it's out of the control of libraries (unless we start publishing family-written obituaries on our own websites for free). But at my library, we have been working to improve access to what we do have. Tune in next week for Part Two of this post, detailing how we created an online index to the obituaries in our newspaper microfilm records, to make then easier for patrons and staff to locate.

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7 Responses to “The Death of Newspaper Obituaries”

  1. Dan Says:

    Or maybe fewer people are dying.

    No, I think the correlation is valid, and tragic. I get obit requests all the time, and it is getting harder and harder.

  2. Kersten Says:

    I ran into the charge for having an obit published when a family member died in 2002. We ran a lengthy obit in the Bisbee, AZ newspaper for free. We wanted to run the same obit in a paper in Milwaukee, WI but it was going to cost $80. We settled on a shorter version to be published.

    Also, another family member died in 2009. This time the funeral home posted a very lengthy obit for him on their website. I don’t know how long it will be up/managed, but when you do a search for his name on google, the funeral home’s obituary is the first result to appear. (The fifth result is from the newspaper obituary we had published. (Can’t remember if that had to be paid for… ))

  3. Jeff Scott Says:

    I think that is a general lament of the dying newspaper. It’s a big blow to local history without them, and if they go digital, how is that preserved?

  4. Elizabeth L. Says:

    I agree with Jeff; I think this is an effect of the print news industry. My parents still get the paper every day and read it every day. My mom reads the obituaries daily and doesn’t understand why someone may not be listed. In her mind, everyone uses the paper as one of their primary news sources just as they did 10 years ago.

    It’s hard to explain to late adopters why they can no longer find the traditional sources they are used to any more. It makes our job that much harder.

  5. Steve Kemple Says:

    I work in the Magazines & Newspapers Department at a main library in a metropolitan area in Southwestern Ohio that happens to be home to the most expensive (at least the last statistic I heard) non-national newspaper to run an obituary or death notice in. A tremendous part of what we do every day is facilitating genealogical research, mainly scanning death notices and obituaries from microfilm and e-mailing them to remote patrons. It’s remarkable to compare the small number of death notices running today versus even five years ago, even more so when you compare it to fifty or more years ago.

    A recent trend has been funeral homes hosting memorial web pages, with a photograph and a generous amount of space, for a fraction of the cost the newspaper would charge to run the shortest death notice for a single day.

    What happens when the funeral home goes out of business or their server crashes? To my knowledge, no library houses this information. It will be interesting to see 50 or 100 years from now what sort of record will have been kept of our era because of how we treat our deaths.

    It’s also interesting how comparatively sanitized our present day newspapers are compared to those of the past. Although they were given to sensational reporting at times (which is an understatement), suicides and violent deaths were treated as newsworthy events, and were even described in what seems like gruesome detail. This tells us a lot about the mentality of the time… not just the reporting style, but a sense of the general mood. In the early 1900’s, there is a story just about every day (sometimes several) of some depressed person jumping off a bridge or taking poison or “blowing his brains out”. Gruesome, yes… but it conveys something real about the time, the collective anxieties.

    That was a bit of a tangent… my point is simply that the choices made in keeping records now can have an enormous unforseeable impact on the clarity with which the future generations will be permitted to recall ours.

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    I agree that this is a microcosmic effect of the overall situation of news organizations. However, I heard a theory once which gave me hope: regardless of what happens to the papers in large and medium size markets, the papers service small communities will always survive. The logic was that lots of other people can do regional and national news cheaply, but no one but the local papers care about local sports, town elections, and community obituaries, so that niche would always be available. Obviously, that logic was flawed.

    I also think factors other than cost are causing this decline. In my town, the local paper is only a weekly, but the city next door has a daily paper that also covers this community – many people may opt to list the obituary there instead, since it has a wider circulation. And yes, thanks to Obamacare, people are probably living longer.

    Also too, like Elizabeth says, papers just aren’t as important to people now as they once were. When someone dies, that information might get spread via Twitter, Facebook or text messages, because that is the way people communicate now – it might not occur to people to put it in the paper. And sadly, that means no permanent record for these things any more, or at least no single source for them. And like Steve pointed out, even funeral home websites aren’t the archive that public library holdings are.

  7. Dennis Mar Says:

    In addition to the cost of family-written obituaries, I lament the loss of the days when reporters wrote the obituaries. Back then you could read obituaries as history or commentary on recent life in America. An old journalism book I have said that editors would put good reporters on obituaries because editors knew that those items would be saved by the families and read in the future.

    Death notices written by families are heartfelt. They can be wonderful expressions of appreciation for the deceased. But they aren’t descriptions of a life. Parts of a person’s life can be skipped over that a reporter would not. Because of my interest in Asian-American history, I would always read the obituaries of Japanese-American people born before WWII. Were they sent to internment camps? Did they return to their pre-WWII homes after the war? I miss reading those little bits of history.