In a few years, people will probably wonder what the fuss was about the rapid decline of newspaper popularity in the early 21st century.
Historians will argue whether the final nail in the coffin came from chain ownership (a safe bet), arrogance (another safe bet and might just be a synonym for chain ownership), or technology.
Or it could just be that newspapers are dying because of the way they have treated the dead.
At one time, all small to medium-sized newspapers in the United States ran complete obituaries of everyone who died. It didn’t matter if it were the richest man or town or the town drunk, a 102-year-old who lived her entire life in the community or an infant, the passage was considered newsworthy.
It was not only a matter of fairness, but it was good business. Everyone had an investment in the local newspaper and the obituary pages always ranked at the top in readership surveys.
That common sense approach to journalism began to die when newspaper owners, after running away advertisers with a glut of special sections and greed to boost the kind of profit margins that other businesses could only dream of, began to think of the deaths of human beings as just another revenue source.
I was the editor of the Carthage Press, a small Missouri daily in the 1990s when the regional newspaper, the Joplin Globe, (or perhaps I should say the chain that owned the newspaper at that time) decided to charge for obituaries. If your family paid, your death was newsworthy. If not, it received a brief mention, including the time and place for the funeral service.
Perhaps it is just coincidence, but from that point on, I have seen a deterioration in the Globe as a community newspaper. When the biggest newspaper in the area began charging for the service, it was only a matter of time before all of them did. Thankfully, by the time that happened, I was a teacher and was no longer in the newspaper business.
When the Globe moved into the internet era and established a website, it maintained the same division- obituaries for those who could afford it, and death notices for those who could not.
This week, that approach changed.
Now if you visit the Globe website and want to know when or where a funeral is going to take place, you have to either be a subscriber to the print edition or to the Globe’s e-edition. It doesn’t matter if you are a friend or family member from out of state who has no connection with Joplin and no need for subscribe to a Joplin newspaper, if you don’t, you’re out of luck.
The timing was bad for the hard working staff at the Joplin Globe. During the past year, it has received well-deserved attention from across the nation, including a recent documentary about its courageous response to the May 22, 2011, tornado, that killed 161 people, including one Globe staff member, and displaced about a third of the Globe’s workers.
The Globe’s corporate management, the good folks at Community Newspapers Holding, apparently decided it was time for its newspapers to milk a few cents more out of the death industry.
I am sure it will not be long before someone sets up a website where obituaries can be found and when that happens another reason to read newspapers will have vanished forever- the same fate as classified ads and eventually legal notices when people come to the realization that the only reason those are still in newspapers is to prop up their bottom line- the taxpayers would probably be served just as well in this day and age by having legal notices posted on internet sites.
Writing these words does not come easily to me. I have loved newspapers since I was six years old and my dad, a truck driver, brought me copies of the Kansas City Star and Tulsa World to read. We always had subscriptions to the Joplin Globe, Neosho Daily News and the Newton County News. I spent 22 years as a newspaper reporter and editor and loved every minute of it. The rapid decline of newspapers breaks my heart, but once they started being just another stock market commodity instead of a public service, they sealed their own fate.
When, and if, the newspaper industry dies, a victim of its own greed and incompetence, I am sure there will be some venue where its obituary will be written- and no one will have to pay to see it.