Majority of publishers now charge for obits

By Ken Blum

It’s a question that has created heated debates over the years, and it still has the ability to raise the ire of some publishers and editors.

“Should community newspapers charge for obituaries?”

The trend indicates “yes.” From my experience working with hundreds of hometown newspapers, I’ll estimate that, today, two thirds charge for obits in some way. A few offer free “death notices”—a basic summary of a citizen’s passing including name, date of birth and death, hometown and funeral arrangements.

Then, they charge for more detailed obits. A typical charge for a midsize weekly is $30 to $40 for up to 12 column inches, plus a per-inch charge if it exceeds this limit.

Anything goes with the paid obit. The family can include information such as, “Ben liked to talk about childhood adventures with his best friend, a beagle/bulldog mutt, Butch.

“Butch once saved Ben from the furious currents of the Killbuck River.

“Butch’s ashes were kept, and will be buried beside Ben’s at Oak Hill Cemetery.”

Here is the great irony about the free versus paid obit: The more detailed paid obit will increase readership, and at the same time be a significant revenue source for the paper.

Most editors would edit down a free death notice or obit that told the tale of Ben and his mutt, Butch—and most of the other interesting trivia about Ben’s life.

But the tale of Butch’s heroics are a “go” as long as it’s a paid obit.

And here’s the result:

Keep in mind the obit page is always, always, among the best-read parts of any hometown paper, perhaps second only to the lead story on the front page.

Readers love to know about Ben and Butch’s friendship. Tidbits like this in an obit—not listing of clubs joined or awards won, but personal anecdotes—send readership soaring.

The newspaper benefits in two ways—increased readership, and revenue from the paid obituary.

So if you charge for paid obits, encourage the family of the deceased to tell the tale of what made this person unique. If he was a WW11 vet, how about a few details about the theater he served in and the duties he performed? If she was a teacher, what made her a teacher who influenced young lives?

Create a form that the funeral home can use that includes a section for life anecdotes, highlights and whatever made this individual one of a kind.

The newspaper’s charge for a salute that will last forever will run about one-hundredth of the cost of the typical funeral; or about one-fiftieth of the cost of an expensive casket that will be seen for a couple hours.

So go ahead and charge for lengthy obits while encouraging the content that makes them memorable. © Ken Blum 2011

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 free e-mail newsletter 40 times a year 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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