By Denise Tessier
Knowing I subscribe to the Journal, a family member recently called to ask if I would look on the obituary page for the name of a friend whom she heard had just passed away.
It was a Sunday, generally the day with the greatest number of such tributes. I looked on the Deaths/Funerals page and didn’t find the name. But I wasn’t surprised. As I suspected, the death was so recent that an obituary hadn’t yet been prepared, and a short tribute to her friend showed up a couple of days later.
But her expectation of a near-immediate death notice illustrates a common misconception about newspaper obituaries in general and the Journal’s obit page in particular. What most readers don’t realize is that while the Journal informally calls itself the city’s “paper of record,” that doesn’t mean it will run an immediate notice or even that it will ever run one on every person in Albuquerque who has died.
Usually — and this is true of most larger newspapers – it’s a service only for those who have paid.
There are exceptions to this, of course. If someone is prominent enough, s/he likely receives a news story that usually appears just above the dark line that delinates the individual listings that make up the gray-toned obituary “page.”
If the death itself is newsworthy, a tribute could run on a news page of the paper, even on Page One. A fairly recent example (other than the obvious case, the death of former Gov. Bruce King) is the coverage that was afforded former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Gene Franchini. Franchini was worthy of a front-page spot both because of his contributions to the state and because he died while giving a lecture at the University of New Mexico, a newsworthy event. I would submit he also deserved the front page because he was so widely regarded with fondness (and reporter Scott Sandlin’s compassionate report reflected this).
In addition to the news stories that ran about him, Franchini’s life also was summarized on the obituary page in the tiny lettering known in the newspaper biz as “agate type.” It is among these life biographies that most people assume the paper runs death notices as a matter of record, and free of charge.
What many don’t realize is that those who’ve died don’t appear on this page unless someone has paid a funeral home to put it there. Papers run them in agate so as to differentiate them from news stories; the type more closely resembles that of the classified ad.
Gail Rubin, a long-time local public relations professional and author, recently started a guide blog for those who’ve gone through the death and funeral arrangements process, and her site, “The Family Plot Blog,” includes a thorough recitation of the process of getting an obituary in the newspaper. (Because it’s so complete, I’ll let a link to her explanation suffice here.)
To offer a bit of history, about a decade ago newspapers all over the country decided it would be easier to go to the paid obit system because families and funeral homes were insisting that notices include lengthy lists of the deceased’s clubs, hobbies, relatives, and more, as the American Journalism Review noted in “The Death of the Free Obit,” an interesting story on the subject. Dealing with these requests became contentious and time-consuming for editors.
From that standpoint, the paid obit makes sense. But the same criticisms that surfaced with the paid obit a decade ago still hold true today: It can seem a “mercenary act” to charge for what should be a matter of record, like birth notices and wedding notices, which are still free. And what about those whose families cannot afford a death notice? Their deaths – unless related to unusual circumstances or a crime – go unreported.
In that light, it would be a service if the Journal would list every death – not just those placed by funeral homes — at least by providing the deceased’s name and his/her birth and death dates.
The paper won’t make any money adding free death notices. But perhaps it could offset the cost from these few extra lines by offering a new paid service: a photograph or two of the deceased.
Other papers have done this with success. For the reader, it’s especially interesting when family or friends of an older person select for publication a picture of the deceased as a young adult. And if two photos appear – depicting the younger person and the more recent photo — it’s fascinating, like those 50th anniversary stories accompanied by “before and after” portraits that show the elderly couple today and how young they looked on their wedding day 50 years before.
Way back in high school, we reporters learned the adage that “names sell papers.” In the case of obituaries, the resulting newspaper clipping is a memento, a piece of family history and a gold mine for future genealogists.
The unpaid listings won’t prompt the purchase of extra papers, as the longer obituaries sometimes do, but they would help the Journal stand in service to history.