Obituaries deserve interesting headlines, too

October 10, 2013


Imagine writing the following headlines for the most important news stories in your paper.

The story: the school board meets and votes to put a $30 million bond issue for a new high school on the ballot.

The headline: “School Board Meets Thursday”

The story: The sheriff arrests a fugitive suspected of being a serial killer.

The headline: “Arrest Tuesday”

Ridiculous, right?

Of course it is but this is the way most editors write the headlines of some of their most important news. And what kind of news is that?

The obituaries, of course.

If you don’t think obits are right up there with the best read news in your paper, take a reader survey. I guarantee obits will be at the top of the must-read list.

So how are the obits typically headlined?

Joe Miller, 78

Jolene Molleen, 86

Is the only thing newsworthy about Joe dying the fact he lived for 78 years?

Keep in mind that any person who dies, be she princess or pauper, has affected hundreds, even thousands, of local lives and, to varying degrees, the community itself.

Obituaries are news, not announcements. They deserve headlines that point out the significance of the person’s life.

Check the example with this column from the Obituary section in the Journal Era of Berrien Springs, MI—a three-deck headline summarizing a highlight of the person’s life, and a subhead about interests, other pursuits, hobbies, etc. Also, note the name of the person is always in the headline.

Overkill? I don’t think so.

A readership builder? Definitely.

Even a person who led a quiet life deserves an obit headline.


 “Joe Miller was a lifelong resident of Orrville.”

“Jolene Mollene was the mother of three sons and two daughters.”

 “Harry Ralston graduated in the Orrville High School class of ’63.”

Here are a few other observations and concepts to consider for your obituary section.

• Most papers charge for obituaries. Some use a flat fee. Some charge by the column inch. Some run short death notices for free, but charge for more detailed accounts. And many papers still consider obits as important news, and charge nothing at all.

In markets where two or more newspapers compete for readers, there is a hesitance to charge for fear the funeral homes will submit obits only to the other paper.

• Encourage the funeral homes to submit pictures of the deceased. They always increase readership. A recent trend is to accept informal pictures that tell a story about the person’s life. For example, let’s say the deceased was a well-known stock car driver. Run a two column picture of him with his stock car. It’s well worth the space.

Also, submission of a picture of the person at a much younger age is now common, typically taken at the height of his or her vitality and appearance. I’ve seen high school pictures in obits for 90-year-olds. And why not?

It’s up to the family, not the newspaper.

• If you charge for obituaries, consider running a small photo/name of the funeral home with each obit. It’s good publicity for the funeral home, and a reminder of its location.

Also note in the example from the Journal Era—smaller subheads are used for memorials and services info, making them easier to locate as reminders.

• Is the deceased a veteran? Many papers run an American flag illustration with every veteran’s obituary, a well-deserved honor. There should be no charge for this salute.

Remember, the purpose of obit headlines, and other features to enhance obits, is not only to show respect for the deceased, but to supercharge readership of the most popular section of your paper next to the front page. © Ken Blum 2013


Ken Blum is the publisher of Butterfly Publications, an advising/speaking/publishing business dedicated to improving the profitability and quality of community newspapers. He puts out a monthly free e-mail newsletter titled Black Inklings. It features nuts and bolts ideas to improve revenue and profits at hometown papers. To subscribe to the newsletter or contact Ken, e-mail him at; or phone to 330-682-3416.

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