Dead Lines

The Denver dailies change the way they handle obituaries -- for better and for worse.

The Fourth Great Obituary Writers' National Conference will take place from May 31 to June 1 in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Among the panelists scheduled are Alana Baranick, an obit authority with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Kay Powell, obituary editor for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and keynote speaker Nigel Starck, a University of South Australia professor who's conducting a research study of obituaries from across the globe. "This will really lift us to an international scope," Gilbert effuses.

Predictably, Gilbert isn't a fan of the paid obituary, and not only because its rise may well impede the growth of what she views as a journalistic art. She's also concerned about the cost -- a topic she became well versed in earlier this year, when her 81-year-old father, R.C. Milford Jr., passed away. She wrote obituaries for him, and when she contacted several publications about running them, she received a wide variety of quotes. For instance, the Dallas Morning News publishes obits using an agate type size that's smaller than the one most often employed by the Post or the Rocky; fourteen lines fit in a single inch, and a photo counts as 22 lines. Since the Dallas paper charges $3.97 per line on Sundays, a ten-inch obituary with an additional photo would cost (gulp) $634.14. The fee at the Houston Chronicle was potentially even higher; the Chron asks for $8.91 per line.

Prices at smaller papers were generally better but still hefty. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram charged her $335 for one publication of an 84-line obit with photo; the Wichita Falls Times Record News cost $225 for a single run of a 100-plus line obit with photo; and the smallish Olney Enterprise requested a comparatively modest $143 for a photo and around 200 lines of text. Overall, Gilbert says, she was "stunned" by the expense.

Because of differences in typeface and other variables, directly comparing costs at different papers is nearly impossible -- but it's safe to say that obits at the Post and the Rocky don't come cheap. Jim Nolan, spokesman for the Denver Newspaper Agency, which is now handling obits at the papers, quotes the average price as $11 per line, which works out to about $88 per inch of copy. Still, Nolan emphasizes that the papers won't put dollars above sensitivity.

"We have told the funeral homes that if they have a hardship or indigent case, we will work with them to try and accommodate the family," Nolan says, adding, "Any profitability is a by-product of trying to provide a service to our readers, and this is the way the industry has arrived at doing that when it comes to obituaries. When we contemplated doing this, we surveyed 25 major metros, and we discovered that we were the only ones not charging for obits. The industry consensus seems to be that this is the best way to go about things from a service standpoint."

A further benefit, from Nolan's perspective, is that paid obits allow families to do things their way, publishing precisely what they'd like about their loved one. But because journalists aren't overseeing the operation, the potential for mistakes is increased. For instance, an April 4 obit stated that a woman was survived by a laundry list of kin "and the Denver Broncos," which, if true, suggests that the players are more closely related than anyone suspected. Just as important, says retired prof Ray, such blurbs don't provide the reading satisfaction that an obituary written by a pro might.

"Most family-written obits are overly sentimental and flowery and do not give people who didn't know that person a real sense of what he or she was like," Ray says. "You need a writer who's both objective and who can translate a person's humanity so that other people can feel it and identify with it."

Ray worked at the Littleton Independent for twenty years, eventually winding up as the paper's co-owner, editor and publisher; in 1984, three years after he sold the publication, he embarked on a teaching career at CSU that lasted until his retirement this past summer. Along the way, he developed a keen interest in obituaries that he traces to the late Houstoun Waring, who served as editor or editor emeritus at the Independent for over sixty years. "By his count, Houstoun wrote more than 13,000 obituaries, all of them about people from Littleton or with Littleton connections," Ray says. "He thought obituaries were important to the community and to families, and understood that it was important to recognize those lives. So I grew up with that philosophy."

He also developed an allergy for bad obits. "Obituaries are often the most stereotyped, least informative, least interesting writing in the paper," he points out. To show that this need not be the case, Ray wrote "Obits Should Capture Life," an influential 1998 article that first appeared in Grassroots Editor, a publication put out by the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. In subsequent addresses, he enumerated "Ten Keys to Writing Better Obits," such as "Raise the status of obit writing," "Talk to more sources," "Ask better questions," "Think of obituaries as profiles that could run as feature stories," "Give special treatment to ordinary people," and "Above all, be accurate." As he notes, "It's hard to imagine how upset people get when there's some factual error in the final summing up of someone's life."

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