Not dead yet


I’ve been reading and appreciating newspaper obituaries for years – learning interesting facts about little-known people, acquiring little-known facts about interesting people, and coming across plenty of variations on those themes in the process.

Most U.S. newspapers have two flavors of these written summaries of a person’s life:

  • the paid “death notice,” generally placed by a funeral home or a family to ensure knowledge of a person’s passing, and available to anyone willing to pay the fee; and
  • the editorial “obituary,” generally written by a newsroom staffer after someone has determined that the readership needs to know both of a person’s passing and of the life that person lived, and in practice limited in number by the amount of time and space available to the city desk.

Death notices often are the largest category of classified advertising in the paper after jobs, cars, and homes.  Like most kinds of classified content, they have begun to change because of the Web. Obituaries often are the most frequently searched items on newspaper Web sites if you combine all the search strings people use to try to find them.  Like most kinds of news content, they also have begun to change because of the Web.

The key in that last paragraph is the word “begun.”  Over the first dozen years of the Internet era, both types of newspaper obituary (and at some newspapers, both kinds are called “obituaries”; “death notice” is a common but not universal way to specify the paid variety) have remained primarily a print-first, Web-second piece of information.

That is unlikely to be sustained over time, and this fall’s Interactive Innovation Project at Medill is devoted to figuring out what might be next.  As is the case of many Medill “capstone” projects for grad students, the students are working with a media company as a key part of the effort; for this one, it’s Legacy.com, the Evanston company that hosts the death notices of about 750 newspapers.

Legacy is one of the biggest Web sites you may never exactly have heard of. comScore / Media Metrix says it’s the 92nd largest Web site by traffic, but most of the pages Legacy serves primarily feature a newspaper brand. The notices for 3 of every 4 Americans who die appear on Legacy because of its newspaper relationships, a big enough slice that more than a handful of competitors are paying attention.  (Disclosure: Tribune Co., where I used to work, is the largest individual investor in this privately held company, and I was a champion of Tribune’s investment around a decade ago.  In fact, I set aside my own Chicago Tribune version, internally and affectionately known as “death.com,” when Legacy’s predecessor firm came calling, and Tribune put me on the board in 2001.)

“death.com” was created because I thought newspapers needed to be proactive about maintaining their primacy in the provision of this sort of information as the world changed.  The partnership between Legacy and the newspaper industry has helped so far, along with the fact that obituaries are exactly the kind of relevant local news that newspaper companies need to differentiate themselves from their offline and online competition. In fact, in the “Impact” study of 100 newspapers conducted by Northwestern’s Readership Institute back at the turn of the decade, obituaries were found to “have the highest potential of all news items to improve readership.”

If that was then, and if that is even now, there’s still no telling about next.  So the eight graduate students have been challenged to learn what has changed over a decade, and to try to understand where all the participants in this information market – the bereaved; readers of obituaries; news companies; and Legacy – will be positioned going forward.

I have no clue where they will wind up, but you can learn along with the students by subscribing to their blog at obitresearch.com. The blog was just launched this weekend, and its first few posts already demonstrate the breadth of the topic, and the interesting depth of the students’ own experiences.

Enough from me.  If you’re interested, head on over.

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About Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Formerly senior vice president/strategy and development, Chicago Tribune.