Update: Ernie Schreiber, editor of the Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era, has responded to this post. I encourage you to read his response.
If I were seeking to kill off newspapers (I’m not), I would try to persuade them to charge people to read obituaries online. Apparently that’s the plan of Journalism Online, a profiteer seeking to cash in not only on newspapers’ death wish but on the deaths of their readers.
Journalism Online’s sucker in this fantasy-based paywall experiment is the Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era (oh, the irony in that name; I will call it the Old Era for purposes of this blog). People who read more than seven obits a month at the test site, LancasterOnline in Pennsylvania, will be denied access unless they pay $1.99 a month or $19.99 a year.
I won’t explain the plan here; Poynter’s Bill Mitchell and paidContent’s Staci Kramer gave Old Era Editor Ernie Schreiber lots of opportunity to explain his rationale and projections, which are equally ridiculous.
I also won’t explain how shaky the Journalism Online projections are. Mark Potts did an excellent job of that.
What I will explain here is why, in the long and shameful history of newspapers refusing to innovate, this might be the most shortsighted, stupid move yet.
Here are four reasons this move will backfire in a big way:
- The Old Era is double-dipping on death. Families of the deceased already pay for the newspaper to publish the obituaries. You can justify making obits available in the print edition only for people who pay, because the company charges everyone for the print edition. But the Old Era is not throwing a paywall around its whole news site, just the obits. Schreiber blithely explained to Mitchell: “Our premise is that when a family through a funeral home pays for an obit, they’re really paying to alert the community [where] the newspaper circulates. … No part of that fee is associated with a promise to circulate that obit worldwide.” Nice value proposition on the fee for publishing an obit. The Old Era is charging both to publish the obituary and to read it. Good luck making that look like you’re not looking for a way to squeeze a little more money from grieving people.
- People can find the obituaries somewhere else. I just visited the Old Era site and looked online for one obituary, chosen because she had a distinctive name. I easily found another obit for her at another news site. She wasn’t on Legacy.com, but the second person I tried who was listed in the Old Era obits was. Many, if not most, funeral homes publish obits on their web sites. Even more will do so. Or more families and funeral homes will publish their obits at Legacy.com (which may be a whole different kind of obituary problem for news organizations).
- The people who are most interested in obituaries are older people, the most loyal group of newspaper readers. Do you really want to push them to learn how easy it is to find news elsewhere?
- People share their anger. Most of the people who check the obituaries more than seven times a month have strong connections to your community (those are their friends they’re checking up on). These are people who have moved away from the community but still have friends who live there. They may not be worth much to your advertisers. But they mean a lot to their aging friends (who are bound to be loyal readers of the Old Era). What newspaper executives in their right minds think that the trickle of revenue to be had from charging to read obits is worth the local black eye for charging both to publish them and to read them?
Older readers are one of the few assets a newspaper has these days (I can’t remember who I stole this from, but I wasn’t the first to suggest calling the obits the “reader countdown”). A decision to milk your remaining assets this way is tantamount to surrender.
As noted above, Ernie Schreiber, editor of the Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era, has responded to this post. I encourage you to read his response.