Online Obits: Newspapers Miss an Obvious Opportunity

By: Steve Outing

Recently, my parents mentioned to me that they had learned of the death of an old friend of theirs in England. They wanted to know more, so I did the obvious thing and used the World Wide Web to visit the local paper in this person’s community to see if I could find record of his obituary in its archives. The newspaper’s Web site failed me.

This made me curious, so I checked a number of newspaper Web sites — and confirmed my suspicion that most publishers don’t even put obituaries online. If a paper has an online archive of the print edition, you might be lucky enough to find someone’s obituary and other mentions of a person’s life in an archive search. But don’t expect to find obits on most newspaper Web sites.

And that’s a great missed opportunity by the newspaper industry.

Admittedly, obituaries are not the most exciting part of a newspaper. But obits are one of those newspaper pieces that can benefit greatly from being online. They are more useful in online form than in print. Treated right, an online database of obits can provide a wonderful public service — and perhaps even provide a modest revenue stream to support the site.

What’s wrong

There are examples of newspaper sites handling obituaries. WashingtonPost.com, for example, has an obit section that lets you search through the last month of obits and death notices from the newspaper. That’s a nice service, but it has some shortcomings:
To look back further, you would need to search the newspaper’s print archive — which at this date is still “coming soon” to the Web site. The Post’s obits only include prominent people who have died. You won’t find Joe Everyman. Obits that are placed online expire after one month. It does not allow for survivors to add anything to what the newspaper published originally. A better approach

One newspaper that takes obits seriously is the Charlotte Sun Herald in Port Charlotte, Florida, which has a special section of its Web site that is a permanent online home for news about those who have died in that community. The most significant thing about the Sun Herald’s approach is that it allows community members to post their own tributes and memories of loved ones to the Web site for free. Even those who know they will die soon are invited to post their own goodbyes in advance of death, with the files posted after they pass away. The result is a robust “living history” of the local area and the people who have lived their lives there.

(You may recognize the Charlotte Sun Herald as the winner of Editor & Publisher’s 1997 Best Online Newspaper Service award, in the small-circulation daily category. The paper’s Web site impressed the E&P judges in large part because of features like its “In Memory” section.)

How to bring obituaries alive online

Given the shortcomings of what’s out there on most newspaper sites today, I have a proposal for how local newspapers should treat obituaries on the Web:

Create a special obituaries (or “memories”) section within your Web site, which highlights that day’s obituaries and paid death notices. (Feeding this daily section can be largely automated.) The obits area should have a search function so that survivors can find obituaries of someone who may have died some time ago.

Create permanent URLs (Web addresses) for every obituary, and encourage those with personal Web sites to link to a particular obituary. Do not let obits expire on the Web site (and thus be accessible only via the archive of the print edition), but rather treat them as a separate component that will remain online permanently. Also include an “A,B,C,D…” directory, to allow browsing of archived obituaries. Invite survivors to create their own online tributes to departed loved ones, much as the Sun Herald has done. From an online version of a newspaper obituary, you can invite family and friends to compose remembrances that become attached as a hypertext link to the permanent online obituary. They also can be allowed to link to other Web sites — for example, a family Web site set up by the survivors — or include photographs of the deceased (perhaps for a fee). (Such self-publishing capabilities are at the heart of community publishing software systems, available from such companies as Koz and Pantheon/Zip2.) Include an automated link to a custom search screen that will find articles about the deceased that have run in the newspaper. This can be in the form of a pre-configured search for “Joe Smith” run on the newspaper electronic archives. Publishers may want to incorporate this into the normal archive system, such that a viewer would have to pay to actually read the full 3-year-old newspaper article mentioning Joe Smith. If you want to be serious about this, you’ll want to extract all the obituaries from your newspaper’s archives and parse them into a searchable database. Then it truly becomes a useful geneological tool. Promote the “memories” site as a community geneological resource. And finally, don’t overlook the revenue potential of such a service. Permanently archived online obituary/remembrance areas can be subsidized by advertising — from the obvious local funeral homes and mortuaries, to florists, insurance companies, hospitals, nursing homes, medical centers, etc. This online source of revenue does not have to interfere with paid print death notices, but supplements them. And while we’re at it, you might consider treating other innocuous elements of the daily newspaper in a similar vein. Just as obituaries make for a valuable online database, so do the listings of births, marriages and other minor “news” that newspapers publish. In these days of inexpensive, ever-expanding disk space, there’s little reason not to compile — and make available to your customers — such useful databases. Imagine in place of a survivor’s memory of a loved one, the musings of a newlyweds’ friends and family penned and recorded online (with accompanying advertising from the department store that holds the bridal registry). Or the words of congratulations from friends and family to new parents.

Credit where it’s due

The idea for this column came in part from David Rothman, a writer and author (“NetWorld! What People Are Really Doing on the Internet, and What It Really Means to You,” Prima, 1996) living in the Washington, D.C., area whose father died this year. Rothman on his own Web sites linked to the Washington Post’s online obituary of his father, but was disappointed to learn that the link expired after a month. He complained about this issue, urging the newspaper Web staff to change its policy and allow permanent links — which would allow people like him to link directly to the Post site from their personal Web sites. He has recorded some thoughts about this issue on his own Web site.

Rothman has some interesting thoughts on the permanent linking issue, which I plan to deal with in a future column.

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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