"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, January 5, 2015

Do newspapers have to get paid for obits?

There was a time when the obituary department at newspapers was a low-status job. The poor soul who wrote these had to deal with the saddest news possible. They say funerals are a "celebration of life" but we know what they're really about.
Anyone who ever got paid for writing obituaries should have simply appreciated it. Why? Because over a short period of time, newspapers ceased having an obituary department. What I mean is, no longer do newspapers have a writer whose job it is to process obituaries. There was a sea change.
Many years ago you couldn't have troubled most funeral homes to submit completed, polished obituaries. Your typical obituary writer at a newspaper would grumble about the difficulties, having to piece together obits from unevenly-submitted information. Today that system is all gone with the wind.
Writing is no longer a specialty. Let's re-phrase that: It's no longer a specialty associated with people employed at newspapers. But really it's not a specialty at all. Everyone today grows up learning keyboard (typing) skills. It's so taken for granted, we're hardly conscious of it, but when I was young, writing was not only a specialty, it was considered a chore by most people. Males in particular shunned it. We used manual typewriters.
Obituaries in the year 2014 are handled completely by the funeral home. These businesses must have someone on staff who is proficient in typing and compiling information.
Through all the time I handled obituaries at the Morris newspaper, these articles were presented as news, as a public service. Not long after I left the Morris newspaper, this sea change of which I write happened. The funeral homes took charge. The only "work" by the paper would be to copy/paste onto the pages.
More significantly, money got involved. Now the newspaper would get paid for running an obituary. The money would come from the funeral home. The funeral home would then get the money back from the family. It seems rather unseemly to me. I could argue that the newspaper ought to be paying the funeral home rather than the other way around. The funeral home should be compensated for doing the work of compiling the obit. This has saved the newspaper the trouble of having an obituary department at all.
How have newspapers been able to swing this? Maybe they're whistling past the graveyard, so to speak.
I suspect that the funeral industry is under intense pressure to keep prices where they are or to reduce them. The percentage of people requesting cremation is going up steadily. I have heard a local clergyman say "people don't go to funerals anymore."
My mom and I are at an age where many people we know are passing on. We have discovered we are weary of funerals, and it doesn't mean we don't hold the departed in the highest esteem.
As time goes on, I become more convinced that when a person dies, there should simply be a dignified disposal of the remains and only a modest ceremony - perhaps just a private family gathering at a banquet room - to mark the person's life.
Increasingly I'm bothered by the whole idea of an obit in the newspaper, making that death a public community spectacle rather than the private family tragedy it is.
The price of a traditional funeral is way too high. Is it possible that the traditional funeral is starting to become a vestige of the past? One reason I ask this, is that people are living so much longer today. Medical science has become like a miracle. We're all thankful for this. However, lives can be extended to the point where, by the time a person dies, their quality of life has become substantially diminished. They no longer have a vibrant circle of family/friends, all in their prime and active. Their contemporaries are like them - frail and perhaps in an institution. Death is accepted in a more quiet, subdued way, and oftentimes even with a feeling of relief.
Think of the "old days" when people died younger. There was much more outwardly expressed grief back then. For many funerals today, it's hardly necessary to have those boxes of Kleenex (for tears) distributed around the reviewal room.
I find it totally unnecessary to view an embalmed body. I find it shocking and depressing. The person has passed on - let's remember him/her as they lived.
As funeral homes feel increased pressure to economize and lower prices - and don't tell me they don't feel such pressure - obituaries will come under the microscope like everything else. I suspect many families have members who can simply write an obituary. If not, it's reasonable that they might pay a small fee to the funeral home for this. Still, they have to feed all the info to the funeral home.
I'm not sure the newspaper needs to extract any money in this process.
What if the funeral home decided to play hardball? For example, tell the newspaper the following: We'll write an obit, put it on our website, invite other online-based entities to link to it, but we'll affix a copyright notice and won't allow you to publish it on your pages unless you pay us a fee.
What would happen then? It's very interesting to ponder. As time goes on, people gravitate more and more to funeral home websites for information about someone who they learned has died. Five years ago you could have said "not everyone is online," or "people wouldn't know how to find it (online)." That argument is getting progressively weaker as online gets woven into our lives.
The same situation exists with legal notices in newspapers. There is a constant pull to get this stuff established online-only - no more payments by government entities to newspapers. Logic may dictate all these changes. Change can be a slow process, though, as old habits are ingrained (to a degree).
Ever wonder why you feel a more warm feeling looking at "Senior Perspective" as compared to "the town paper?" "Senior Perspective" is a fresh view toward how locally-oriented print journalism should operate. It's feature-oriented and uplifting all the way. Large-size print. No obituary department. No district court report - that disgusting section of the town paper where local citizens who have received minor citations from law enforcement get hung out to dry - subject to public humiliation (like getting teased at church).
I know of a former Morris pastor who was incensed at getting his "name in the paper" for a speeding ticket. Legally it's "public information." Well then, go to the courthouse and ask to see it.
The local paper has way, way too much space designated for youth sports coverage. We all know this. In the old days, the days when "coach Dale" coached at the fictional Hickory High, the paper would provide comprehensive coverage of "the basketball team." But then came girls basketball, wrestling, hockey, gymnastics and swimming - all now totally organized. While these programs may be quite enriching for the young people, we don't need to see all the printed coverage.
"Senior Perspective" is thus such a breath of fresh air.
Frankly, when it comes to all those sports teams, I say let them all find their online homes and share all the info they want from there. It troubles me that the Willmar newspaper has the effect of glorifying student-athletes, putting them on too much of a pedestal relative to other kids who have other interests. These athletes are not "heroes."
One reason that sports gets so much attention is that it is so structured.
So, we have the depressing obits, the embarrassing district court news and the superfluous mountain of sports news in each week's local paper. Oh, and not to mention the mountain of ad circulars for Alexandria businesses. Maybe I'm in the Twilight Zone.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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