Not dead yet, but for how much longer? 1

As I have mentioned here a couple of times, the students of the fall Interactive Innovation Project at Medill have been studying the past, assessing the present, and projecting the future of obituaries as a form of journalism and as a source of audience and revenue for publishers. Today on its Web site,, the class released a white paper, “The State of the American Obituary,” that contains their findings.

They report that the central position that newspapers have held in communicating the news of Americans’ deaths is substantially threatened by changes in technology and audience behavior. Unlike other categories of aggregated listings, this is an area where newspapers today still retain a dominant market share.  In fact, Inc. – the Evanston-based aggregator of newspaper death notices that sponsored the research project, and where (disclosure) I am an independent board member – hosts death notices for 7 of every 10 Americans who die each year.

The class found that new user- and family-driven forms of remembering the dead, on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace as well as standalone memorial sites and services, are attracting audience members who want not only to read about their friends and loved ones, but also to participate in their memorialization. While this began happening as soon as the first Web browsers appeared, the growth of social media, particularly among the Baby Boom generation, is causing an acceleration.

In preparing their report, the eight students who worked on this project conducted quantitative and qualitative surveys, reviewed scholarly and industry research, and conducted interviews with employees at newspapers nationwide. Based on their findings, they conclude with recommendations to media stakeholders on how to adapt to the many changes in the landscape of grieving, remembering and memorializing the dead.

You can download the report here. It was principally written and edited by Ashley Bates, Ian Monroe, and Ming Zhuang.  Contributing researchers were Jake Bressler, Alina Dain, Chris Deaton, Tiffany Glick, and Kate Goshorn.

About Owen Youngman

Professor Emeritus of Journalism and formerly Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Formerly senior vice president/strategy and development and director of interactive media, Chicago Tribune.

One thought on “Not dead yet, but for how much longer?

  • Kyle Small

    I am interested in the details of the report. I am a pastor of a local church in a growing denomination. There is a common practice in my ecclesial tradition to begin a memorial/funeral/reusrrection service with Psalm 23 followed by a reading of the obituary. This practice is even formalized in our traditions “book of worship.”

    How the public practice of obituaries works out will affect our own liturgical (worship) practices at memorial/funeral/reusrrection services.

    Personal note: I conducted two funerals last week, and both services read from newspaper obits. Maybe some congregations, such as mine, lean toward traditional mediums.

    Again, I think the report holds weight for the ecclesial world, also.

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