Obituaries are big news, but you wouldn’t know that from newspapers

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The most valuable lesson I learned in eight years as a newspaper editor was the lesson I learned after my paper — one of two competing city weeklies in Pittsburgh at the time — was abruptly sold off to its rival and shut down.

In the days that followed, I heard from people all around the city who told me how sorry they were to lose the newspaper and how much they were going to miss it.

A few of those people talked about how important our Page-1 cover stories were. You know: the in-depth reporting we knocked ourselves out every week to research and produce. The stories about big historic events, about government corruption, about local musicians and sports fans and business leaders and church ladies selling pirogies, and how they all made the city a place worth living in.

But most of the people who told me they’d miss the paper said something very different.

They said: “Aw, I hate that you’re gone! Your city event listings always had so much more than the other papers!”

As it turned out, that was the core value most of the community associated with our paper. Not the award-winning journalism we were so proud to showcase, but the utilitarian information that we buried every week on Page 29.

If we’d understood that better, we could have strategized better, marketed ourselves better and very possibly stayed in business.

I see the same fatal misunderstanding playing out now, 20 years later, for many newspapers. This time, it’s not event listings they’re undervaluing. It’s obituaries.

Obituaries, no matter whether they’re paid death notices or editorial reporting, answer the question: Who died today? That question and its answer are about as fundamental and compelling as local news can be.

Data backs that up. For starters: A 2018 study by a large American newspaper group that included an obituaries button in their top-level navigation menus showed that it received a stunning 39% of all that nav bar’s clicks — as compared to 17% for news and 8% for sports.

The numbers also reveal that obituaries drive local news engagement outside of newspapers. A recent study from Harvard’s Neiman Lab analyzed more than 150,000 stories posted in Facebook’s local news feature and found that obituaries were the third most popular category, trailing only sports and emergencies. Meanwhile, the search term “obituaries” has risen 200% in Google search volume over the past five years.

Yet most newspapers don’t treat obituaries like valuable local news content. They handle them as classified ads — prioritizing a pay-per-length, print-before-digital placement whose implacably creeping cost has pushed customers to limit their obits to a bare-bones skeleton paragraph. Why? Because that’s the model papers have always used for acquiring and publishing death notices.

So what does that mean? Two things.

It means newspapers have concerned themselves more with squeezing short-term pennies out of per-obit rates than with exploring how it might be possible to entirely restructure obit revenue into sustainable long-term dollars and client relationships.

It also means newspapers are failing to get the reader engagement they could be getting out of obituary content if they were to encourage smart content strategies like effective headline writing, visual prioritization both online and in print, and richly detailed writing.

And here’s why that matters.

In an era when so much of journalism is under attack as “fake news,” nothing is more absolutely, undeniably real than who died today. This information is a vital hub of meaningful connection for the people who have a vested interest in a newspaper’s community — local residents, as well as all the far-flung loved ones who care about what's happening there.

If your local newspaper keeps you uniquely informed every day of who lives and dies in the place you call home, it’s worth subscribing to. That’s a message worth delivering far and wide.

Obituaries are big news. The question is: Do you still want to be the news source?

This question is brought to you by an editor whose newspaper doesn’t exist anymore

Stephen Segal is the senior editor and director of content at Legacy.com, where his colleagues work in partnership with newspapers to solve the issues addressed above. He previously served as editor in chief of the award-winning Philadelphia Weekly and the late, lamented InPittsburgh Weekly.

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