It's not often that I read a column that expresses my exact thoughts about a subject, but that happened this morning with a column posted on the Columbia Journalism Review website.
The author talks about being charged $404 (and that was after he trimmed it somewhat) to have his mother's obituary placed in the Kansas City Star. The columnist claims that newspapers' disconnect with readers may have started the day someone figured out they could add an extra revenue stream by charging for obituaries.
He hit the nail right on the head.
As I recall, the Joplin Globe was the first newspaper in this area to charge for obituaries and there was an immediate backlash against the practice. It didn't matter. It was a corporate decision and no one in Joplin had any say about it anyway.
Now everyone gets a brief two or three line description that says nothing in the Globe's "Deaths" section, but you have to pay through the nose for anything else.
If your family has the money or the inclination to give in to these vultures who hover over the deceased's loved ones seeking to make profit from their grief, your life means something. If not, you pass from life as quietly as you entered it.
It may have helped the paper's bottom line, but don't tell me that the resentment has subsided; it hasn't, and that may have served to pare the newspaper's circulation in the long run; there is no way of telling since no surveys have ever been done on the topic, but I have heard anecdotal evidence that supports that theory.
Once one newspaper chain found extra dollars from those no longer able to object, it was not long before all of the others joined in. It is hard to find newspapers that remember a basic fact: Not only are obituaries news, but that section of the newspaper is one that has an extremely high readership.
I have written many times on this blog about the treatment of the dead by newspapers. Most of the time I have been referring to people who are prominent or who have been prominent in the community, or people who have been connected to some major news event. Area newspapers have done a much better job in recent months in that regard.
Each life, however, has touched others and the idea that someone's life has no meaning because his family does not have money or because the survivors do not want to give in to extortion goes against every value that community newspapers should represent, and at one time did.