: views from the Hill

Monday, July 03, 2006

Obits as a cost center at your local paper. Penny wise. Pound foolish?

When Dad died in April, one of my responsibilities as the family "writer" was to write his obit and submit it to the local paper, the San Jose Mercury News.

Obituary notices: These paid notices announce services and let family members write their own remembrances. Information is accepted from mortuaries only. The Classified Advertising Department handles obituary notices for a fee based on length. Photos may be delivered 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Call 408 920-5276, fax (408) 288-9972 or email obits@mercurynews.com weekdays for details.

Obituaries: These are stories written by reporters at the Mercury News. Because these are news, we aim to publish them within a week of a death. We judge each potential obituary based on news value and other factors. If you think you have a story, tell us about it briefly at (408) 920-5256. Both types of obituaries can be found at www.mercurynews.com/obituaries.

First hurdle was getting around the issue that all obits had to be submitted by a funeral home. Well, Dad died unexpectedly off Panama and his ashes were shipped home, after an autopsy and cremation. We had no funeral home to submit the obit through. I sent e-mail to the SJMN obit department explaining our circumstances. I received this in reply.

Hello, this e-mail has reached the paid classified obituary department, we are not in the newsroom where news stories are written. I will forward this to them, and they might contact you if they feel the story is news worthy. I cannot speak for them.

If you would like to submit a paid obituary to us in the classified dept., you may do so by sending it to obits@mercurynews.com. We would need your full name, address and phone number and a credit card before running. We charge $9.75 per line, per day, with approx. 31 letters per line, photos are an additional $117.00 per day. Thank you

I wrote the obit. Rough draft first. Found the word count. Gulp. Cut it down, cut it down, cut it down. Ran it by my sibs. Changed a few things. I had the announcement as spare as it could be while both giving a gist of the remarkable guy Dad had been and mentioning the family by name, including his brothers and grandchildren. We decided not to include a photograph.

Even as it was, in its shortened form, it ran three hundred words. Dad had five brothers, six children, nine grandchildren. Should I name the three living children and leave off the three who died as adults? Should I forget about naming his twin? Those two were as close as any two people I've ever known. If I name his twin, how about the other brothers? Of course they belong there too.

So, yes, there were a lot of "wasted" words, words wasted by naming his close kin. We decided to make sure that the obit ran on Sunday, with a day or two on either side for maximum exposure. Three days. The total cost to run the obit for three days was mind boggling.

Whatever happened to the local paper running obits -- short ones -- as a public service? Short ones to be sure. Three lines, maybe. Remember those? Six years ago, when my brother died, the Mercury News was still providing free short obits. I'm sure you paid extra if you wanted something longer. Somewhere, some time, along the way, someone realized that all those free obits could generate a steady, very steady, stream of income if the paper started charging for them. Add in families like mine who want more than a short notice for their pater familias and charge even more and ...

Did the papers' coverage areas get too big? Were there too many people dying and wasting space that had no offsetting ads. Wait. Didn't all those ads from florists, funeral homes, cremation services and other death-related businesses bring some money in?

Was charging fees for any and all obits one way of discouraging obit notices and cutting down on the space needed, or was the paper just looking for another steady stream of income?

How could a family not submit an obit notice when a family member died?

After we submitted Dad's obituary notice, the Merc decided to run a news obituary, but we didn't know ahead of time they would. Cost for our paid obituary notice? $994.50 to run the notice for three days. The news obituary was "news" and, hence, free.

We put the bill on our credit card. Mom reimbursed us after the fact. She felt the obit notice was important to run, but she couldn't believe the cost. I couldn't believe the cost. Mom's memory is pretty ephemeral these days. I'm hoping she forgot the cost as soon as she was told. I haven't and it still sticks in my craw.

The long news obituary that the Mercury News ran covered aspects of Dad's life that I hadn't been able to and included a picture. Dad's news obituary assuaged some of the anger I felt when the Merc quoted its prices for obituary notices, but I still feel our hometown paper routinely, as a matter of business, takes advantage of folks who are in tough shape and a bit numb after the death of a family member. How heartless and bottom line is that?

If I were selling a rug, I could get the paper's special classified advertising package deal: up to three lines of description and five days in the paper for $21.

At obit notice rates, that wee ad would cost $146.25, a 600% markup.

Ah, I can hear the people in the paid obit department saying, but look what you get beyond your in-print obit notice. We keep the notice online for a year with Legacy.com! We let your friends and family leave messages in the Guest Book.

Yes, you do, and Legacy.com makes money along the way. Why, for a mere "one-time, $79 fee, you can sponsor the Guest Book of Donald Frederick Towse to remain online at MercuryNews.com permanently. A sponsorship will allow family and friends to visit and sign the Guest Book on holidays, anniversaries - any day of the year." Isn't that grand?

People can send condolence flowers using Teleflora or funeralflowersusa.com with a simple click from the Legacy.com site. People can send condolence gifts, care baskets and more from The Gift Shop at legacy.com with a simple click from the Legacy.com site. Isn't that great?

I think it's ghoulish to charge for obit notices. I think it's especially ghoulish to charge a 600% markup over classified ad rates if you must charge anything at all. Families are hammered when a family member dies. They are especially prone, as is well known, to overpay for funeral services and caskets and flowers. Why would a newspaper take advantage at this time? Because they can?

Oh, and that obituary the Merc reporter wrote? It's now in the archives and it'll cost you $2.95 to get a copy, if you use the archive search to find it. If you have a direct link? Here you go. ...

When did obits become a cost center? When did they stop being a public service? When did we start paying for wedding announcements, anniversary announcements and death notices? Is the extra money brought in worth the negative vibes that linger on in people who have to pay outrageous prices if they want to get a family member's death notice printed?

When did our hometown paper decide this was a good idea? Is it?

All the extra obit income in the world couldn't save the paper, though. Nothing could stop the inevitable. Tony threw in the towel and sold the Mercury News and the rest of Knight Ridder to McClatchy at the end of June.

RIP Knight Ridder.

Update: His nibs asked, what does the Chron charge?
Answer: Even more ...

$86 per inch per day. There are approximately 7 printed lines per inch. A line consists of approximately 30 spaces.

Discounts are available on consecutive publications.

Note: A fee of $25 will be added to every obituary notice to be on our web site, www.sfgate.com/chronicle/obituaries, including the printed photo, an online Guest Book, and more.

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