David Phillips, publisher of the Bluff County Newspaper Group, in Southern Minnesota, decried the nearly universal trend among newspapers to charge family members to place obituaries in the paper. It's an issue that should be of concern to genealogists and family historians as well.
Phillips' concern is that payment for obituaries, or for placement of stories of any kind for that matter, blur the line between news and advertising. “It makes news a commodity to be sold, not information that a newspaper publishes because it is important to readers,” he says. “The content is dictated by the institution and the timing is dictated by finding the sponsors willing to pay for its publication.”
That' certainly a valid concern for a publisher. When Phillips opened up the topic for discussion among members of the International Society of Weekly Newspapers a second issue emerged. Obituaries are an important part of the historical record of a community. Anyone who has attempted to research a person fro an earlier era whether a historical figure or a family member has undoubtedly found useful information in obituaries. When obits become a paid service of the newspaper they are less likely to appear, or at least less likely to be more than cursory death notices.
“An editor from Maryland wrote: 'Think about the community history that's lost because obits have become ads. Many people's lives have been boiled down to a name, age, hometown and date of funeral - two or three sentences tops. Why? Probably because these families don't have the money to capture their loved one's life. That's a sad delineation and a loss for history. If your paper insists on money for every obit, you'll actually be preventing the community from knowing anything about certain deaths. It will be creating, in effect, a separate system for people with money and those without.'"
While newspapers attempt to cope with the myriad of problems threatening their very survival, it's nice to see publishers thinking about what might be lost as they try to generate enough revenue to try to keep their ships afloat.
Researchers certainly know that if obituaries do disappear their task will become difficult in future years.
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