By: Dorothy Giobbe
It may be common practice at larger newspapers, but readers of
the Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer are outraged at their local
paper’s new policy; even the editorial department is against it sp.
SOME PEOPLE THINK it’s ghoulish. Others say it’s miserly. Either way, a Vermont newspaper’s new policy of charging for obituaries has readers up in arms.
Eagle Publishing Co., the financially-troubled parent company of
the Brattleboro Reformer, says it’s simple economics. Either the Reformer charges for obits, or the layoffs begin.
Obituaries cost $50. Post-funeral notices are $25. The Reformer still prints a death notice containing name, age, address, and date of death, but biographical information is no longer included in the free listing.
Paid death notices are standard at most newspapers in medium-sized or large cities. But in Brattleboro, a small, close-knit community, residents feel a special bond with the 10,876-circulation Reformer. Any attempt to change it sends them into a frenzy.
Worst of all, readers say, the Reformer is guilty of a double standard. Hitting up the locals for a fee while printing extensive obituaries of nationally-known figures isn’t fair, they maintain.
“Where is your integrity?” wrote one irate reader, wanting to know who paid for the obituaries of Jonas Salk, Roger Grimsby and Warren Burger, which the Reformer ran on the front page.
Another accused the Reformer of attempting to “balance the books on the backs of widows and orphans.”
Almost 50 letters have poured into the Reformer’s office, all but one criticizing the policy.
So far, 10 subscribers have cancelled their service, with more threatening to do so.
Death is news, insist residents, especially in a small town. Local culture is enriched by the genealogical information about former community members, residents contend. Many believe that an obituary fee compromises the Reformer’s commitment to local news.
Readers aren’t the only ones who are unhappy. Managing editor Stephen Fay penned a column in which he assured readers that the news department didn’t endorse the policy.
“Eagle Publishing did not start charging for obits in order to get rich; it did so to stay above water,” Fay wrote.
“All of us in the newsroom argued against it, but because we do not make the rules we must live with the policy, however uneasily. Charging for obituaries seems unnatural to us . . . . “
Despite the outrage, officials at the Reformer say the policy is here to stay. Other fees, possibly for wedding announcements, may be “coming down the pike” said Richard Macko, the newspaper’s general manager.
“We knew we would catch hell for the [obit] policy, but we would rather do that then lay people off,” Macko explained.
“I view it as cultural change. People find it difficult to accept, but being faced with the dollars and cents of the business, it was inevitable. Larger papers have done it for years.”
Newsprint increases were “the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of us having to do something,” Macko added.
Besides the Reformer, Eagle Publishing Group owns the Bennington (Vt.) Banner, Berkshire Eagle, Pittsfield, Mass., and Middletown (Conn.) Press.