I don’t expect newspaper companies to follow the advice I offered Wednesday for a new business model for obituaries. Why should newspapers start following my advice now?
So I’ll turn that advice around and suggest that it could work for journalists who have retired, accepted buyouts, lost jobs staff cuts, or are still seeking to break into a shrinking news business.
I am quite sure that many grieving families want something more than the formulaic news article (I refuse to use the word “story”) that most newspapers publish if they still publish free obits at all. And most families don’t have a truly good writer available to craft the kind of paid obituary they want to remember their lost loved one. If they do have a good writer in the family, that person may be struggling with grief, traveling to attend the funeral or wanting to spend time with family.
I can write, but when my nephew Patrick died last year, his parents asked me to deliver a eulogy and that took all the time I had between picking people up at the airport and other family time. His obituary was OK, but didn’t capture Patrick’s personality or his struggle with leukemia the way an artful professional writer could have with more time and less emotion.
I think many families would gladly commission, at a reasonable fee, a professional to write a real life story, which is what an obituary should be.
The business model for a writer would be to offer services through funeral homes, which already are dealing with the families and handling lots of large expenses. A writer doing this as a business could be the primary writer, with a few freelancers available to handle overflow.
As I described before, you could offer a tiered approach: a two-source obit that takes half a day at one cost; a full-day obit with more sources at a mid-range price; an epic-story that takes the two or three days between death and the funeral. The epic package would include a shorter obit the first day for the local newspaper, a quickly printed booklet or tabloid for the funeral and a lasting online version on your memorial website.
(You’d want a better brand name than epic story, but I can’t do the full business plan here; I’m a blogger kicking these half-baked ideas out on my daily commute. And, of course, you would need a pricing plan that was reasonable for families but would provide a good income for the writer.)
Considering how many funeral homes offer prepaid services, you could make this part of the package: Buy the funeral services while you’re still alive and commission the story yourself, rather than leaving that detail for loved ones to address in their grief. The writer gets to interview the subject of the story. This package could include a biography (or ghost-written autobiography) written while the subject is still alive and published in print or as an ebook, with a prepaid fee for updating and publishing an obituary-length version after death.
The touchy part of this whole topic is profiting from people’s grief. That’s what I faulted LancasterOnline for in my Monday post on their plan to charge for reading online obituaries, and at least one commenter on my Wednesday post turned that same issue back on me, suggesting that obits and business model don’t belong in the same sentence. But if you focus on selling the obituary/biography service to the living, then you have a business model based on ego. Who can’t get behind that?
And speaking of business models, I think obituaries are just one of many areas where entrepreneurial journalists can develop healthy businesses taking a different approach to life’s storytelling opportunities. These certainly will present some ethical challenges. You won’t have the independence from news sources that most journalists cherish and protect. But you can insist on accuracy and you can encourage dealing honestly with ups and downs of life. Journalists for hire will need to develop appropriate ethical guidelines and be transparent about them. But ghost writers have been dealing with these issues for years.
As I noted in Wednesday’s post, a journalist with video skills could do the same thing with video obituaries, either as part of the writing business I just described or as a separate standalone business. And this business could do more than obituaries: wedding anniversaries, graduations, retirements, awards, honorary degrees.
This won’t be the right second career for every displaced journalist, but obituaries that have been freed from newspaper formulas are great storytelling opportunities, and many journalists got into this business because they love telling stories.
More to come: Wednesday’s post mentioned Kay Powell, the masterful retired obit writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. I sent Kay a link to the post and we’ve had a nice email exchange since then. I’ll be profiling her shortly, perhaps this weekend. Then I think I’ll stop writing about obits for a while. Unless I hear from Jim Sheeler.