The Business of Obituaries

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When a family member dies in the US, placing an obituary in the local daily newspaper is a century old tradition, and the obituary pages of a newspaper have acted as the central clearing house for information about deaths in a community.

Newspapers are in the business of making money and there’s nothing wrong with that. They provide a service for which people are willing to pay and making a profit is the American way. The business of obituaries is a significant source of revenue for many of the nation’s newspapers. Like other classified ads, newspapers charge by the amount of space an obituary occupies on a page, for every day it appears in print. From $195 per inch of column space in Dallas to $15 per inch of column space in Fargo, the cost can vary widely depending on where you live, but we’ve found the national average to be around $350 for each day a typical length obituary appears in a printed newspaper.

The nation’s newspapers currently enjoy a near monopoly in the obituary business, and their pricing reflects that. The internet has significantly reduced every other revenue source the newspaper industry had. Advertisers can now use low cost, but highly targeted, interactive on-line advertisements and newspapers have been forced to drastically reduce their rates to compete. The newspapers’ grip on the obituary business, however, has remained unchallenged (until now) so they’ve had no incentive to lower the high prices they charge.

Most newspapers now have ‘on-line” editions which also display obituaries and, although grieving families have already paid dearly to have them published, newspapers attempt to maximize profits by streaming advertisements, from weight loss pills to running shoes, directly adjacent to each obituary. It’s a huge win-win for newspapers because millions of people read obituaries every day, and obituaries draw traffic to newspaper websites so, by submitting obituaries, grieving families are actually paying to increase a newspaper’s readership. The newspapers use that increased traffic to attract advertisers and both are advantaged, but families are offered nothing in return in the way of discounts, and have no say in whether advertising is displayed next to an obituary for which they paid. Obituaries are more than just death notices, they’re how we celebrate the life of the people who’ve died and, out of respect for our dead, we’ve always been willing to pay a high price to have them published. Newspapers desperately need revenue, and their hold on the obituary business has allowed them to prioritize profits over the respectful management of those obituaries and the very families that ultimately contribute to their bottom line.

Cultural traditions die hard and families are hesitant to stray from the norm, but competition and innovation are also the American way. The business of obituaries will migrate from high cost newsprint to a low cost, interactive internet platform. It’s only a matter of time and grieving families will benefit from both the innovation, and the competition.

ObitsDaily.com hopes to drive that transition.

 

For a more in-depth look at the deteriorating state of the newspaper business, from the prospective of a newspaper insider, please read: Hey, Publishers: Stop fooling us, and yourselves