Monday night I criticized a Pennsylvania newspaper’s plan to charge loyal online readers to read the obituaries. Today I want to suggest a more innovative, future-focused approach to obituaries.
I was interested that Ernie Schreiber, editor of the Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era, cited my Newspaper Next experience in scolding me for Monday’s post. He clearly had an awareness that N2 was about innovation, but (like many of his peers in the newspaper business) he did not learn the core principles of disruptive innovation that we taught in N2.
One of the fundamental lessons of N2, based on the disruptive-innovation research of Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen, was that innovation opportunities rest in identifying “jobs to be done,” needs people have. Innovators who provide welcome solutions to those jobs are on the path to success, Christensen says.
Schreiber and I can disagree about whether his plan will work and whether he’s trying to “double-dip on death” by charging families to publish the obituary and then charging frequent online obituary readers to read the digital version. That’s a valid argument, based on speculation and differing values. But what is clear from what Schreiber has said is that the solution LancasterOnline is trying was developed solely in the interest of the news organization. No consumers were wishing someone would develop a way for them to pay for reading online obituaries.
This is about bringing in revenue, not about doing a job for anyone outside the company. But obituaries do represent an important (and potentially valuable) job to be done.
Whenever a loved one dies, family members want to tell friends near and far about the deceased. They want a final account of the person’s life, for the written and online record, for children too young to remember the person lost, for friends who’ve lost touch, for generations yet to come.
And what these people want is something better than the formulaic obituary that newspapers used to run for free, on the honest rationale that every death is news. I have written and edited hundreds of such stories. The most terrifying moment of my career was when, as a young editor at the Des Moines Register, I learned that the subject of an obit I had written and edited the night before was alive and well. (Actually, just alive – he had a mental issue that prompted him to call in the obit.)
I have heard and made the argument that obituaries are news stories, an argument I read again on Twitter yesterday as people were discussing my exchange with Schreiber:
I have differed here before with Patrick LaForge (@palafo above) of the New York Times, but Times obituaries are splendid news stories (for years, I have used Douglas Martin’s obituary of Selma Koch in workshops as an example of an outstanding lead). My journalist’s heart is with LaForge here. But newspaper executives have been making too many decisions with their hearts.
The fact is, the Times doesn’t run such news stories on every death in New York. And every death is huge news to a lot of people. The death of my 16-year-old nephew, Patrick, was the biggest story of 2009 for most of my family and for many of his friends.
But the truth is that most obituaries make lousy news stories. If not written by the family, obituaries usually are dry, just-the-facts summaries that utterly fail at capturing the life of the person who is being grieved.
If you want to identify the job-to-be-done in a straight-news, formulaic obituary, it is “Tell me who has died in the community.” That job has value, but the job of giving a boring list of facts about a person who just died has never been a valuable job. That formulaic news story that most news organizations do, if they don’t charge for obits, doesn’t come close to doing the bigger job of telling the story of a person’s life.
Some newspapers started writing “feature obits” about a few especially newsworthy people. Or, if no major figures died that day, an obit writer might spin a tale about an ordinary person who died. Enough newspapers still write feature obits that the Society of Professional Obituary Writers still meets annually. (My friend Kay Powell, formerly of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, deservedly won the Lifetime Achievement Award.) But these ordinary people featured in such obits are chosen at random or by the judgment of the writer. Most people grieving in that community didn’t get that sort of treatment for their loved ones. (And, as newsholes and staff have shrunk, such treatment is becoming increasingly rare.)
I think news organizations are missing an extraordinary opportunity by failing to address the job-to-be-done in telling the story – the full, rich story – of the deceased.
News organizations should provide multiple levels of life stories about the recently deceased (two free, but the rest funded by the family):
- The news story: A prominent person in town dies. A reporter does the story, just as you do now. This is strictly a matter of news judgment. The family can cooperate with the story or not, but you’ll write it at no charge.
- The death notice. This would be a free, formulaic announcement produced from an online template where an authorized funeral home can fill in basic facts: name, age, residence, services, survivors, occupation, employer (if working), perhaps a few others.
- The family-written obituary. This allows for sentimental writing (“passed away” or “went to be with the angels” rather than “died,” as the news story would say) and as much history as the family wants. Family (or funeral home) writes, family pays by the word.
- The family-submitted video. Families would be invited to compose their own video tribute to the deceased. I would suggest hosting family-submitted videos at no charge, but offering editing/production services for a fee, with families providing home videos, pictures, basic facts, etc.
- Commissioned obituary. Some families don’t have anyone with writing ability or don’t want to take the time to write obits in their hour of grief. A news organization could charge for a staff writer to write an obituary of about 1,000 words, based on two or three hours of interviews with family and friends. Almost any reporter could do this job.
- Epic-tale obituary. My friend Ken Fuson wrote fabulous stories about people’s lives, often after famous or otherwise interesting people in our community had died. They weren’t obits, they were news stories. But Ken has a gift for telling the epic tale of a person’s life and telling it quickly. I told him many times that whenever I go, I want Ken writing my obit. Well, Ken’s retired from the newspaper business (though still available for freelancing; here’s an idea, Ken), and writers of his talent are rare. But most news staffs have (or recently bought out) some pretty good old-school storytellers who might relish a job writing interesting stories with no space restriction. These tales might take 2-3 days, but that’s usually the wait for a funeral anyway. Maybe you offer this as a threefold product: booklet (or special limited-run newspaper) for the funeral, obituary-length story in the newspaper and epic-length story that stays forever online. For an elderly person or someone with a terminal illness, you could commission the epic in advance, giving more time to work on it. This could be a present for the living on an 80th or 100th birthday party or 50th wedding anniversary, with part of the package being an update for the obituary.
- Video produced for the family. The news organization can interview family members and friends (perhaps in a side room at the wake), adding photos, home videos and such provided by the family for a professional-quality video obituary. Again, this option could be used while someone is alive and quickly updated after the person dies.
Numbers 3-7 all would provide a welcome service that would do a valued job for grieving family members. The fee for #3 would be fairly low, with modest charges for 4 and 5, hefty charges (but still not the most expensive part of funeral-related costs) for 6 and 7. In each case, the family wouldn’t feel exploited. A free option would be available, and the fee would be related to value and service provided.
The news organization can and should make provisions for the tributes stay online in perpetuity, even if the company folds. Legacy.com annoys loved ones (and even friends) with pitches to pay keep tributes from disappearing after a while, so news organizations would have a chance to turn the tables on disruption. Perhaps archiving costs could be covered by a 99-cent charge for friends and family wanting to add their own memories (by charging, you establish verified identity, which would significantly reduce inappropriate comments). Or the family could receive a password they could share with trusted relatives and friends, allowing them to comment at no cost. I would suggest that you calculate archiving costs and make annual or quarterly donations above that cost to the most popular memorial funds in your community (and state online that you’re doing this and not trying to profit from the charge to comment.)
This would be a business venture that would provide value that might not leave you vulnerable to a free-obit service, a possibility my TBD colleague Jeff Sonderman outlined in a blog post. Free obits would disrupt #3 above, but many families might be glad to pay for the higher-value story or videos described above.
The revenue potential for this approach is far more than even the most optimistic projections Schreiber shared for the LancasterOnline paywall. It would not be proper for me to share propietary information from a former employer. But I do feel comfortable saying that I have been involved in changing an obituary policy to increase the use of paid obituaries (with nothing beyond level 3 above) and I have seen the revenue figures. I can say that paid obituaries, even without these measures I have outlined here, bring in far more revenue than their costs. In a small or mid-sized metro area, this approach could easily support a staff of two or three journalists, maybe more, with a solid profit margin. In a larger metro area, you could support a sizable staff.
Would this have ethical issues to address? You bet. News organizations might need to treat the paid content at advertorial, labeling it somewhere as family-funded. Maybe this staff would have to be set up as distinct from the newsroom. You could set some ground rules, though, insisting on accuracy.
The fees paid by families would not be the only potential revenue sources. You could handle orders of flowers from local florists and make reservations at local hotels for out-of-town mourners, collecting advertising and/or transaction fees. You could collect memorial donations to provide further value (I wouldn’t recommend taking any profit from the donations, though you could and should cover processing costs).
Have I worked out the details of this plan? No. This goes beyond the memorial idea I proposed last year, when I was working at a newspaper company and was pushing a broader innovative approach. It’s probably not going to be high on our list of TBD projects, because our digital audience is likely to be younger than a newspaper’s print audience. And we don’t have the existing relationships with funeral homes and obituary readers that a newspaper organization has. Someone executing this plan would probably add some ideas I have missed here and rule out some impractical suggestions I’ve made.
But here’s an idea I know is practical: Start your innovation efforts by finding jobs you can do for your community.