Thankfully, newspaper reporters aren't paid by the word. But if you calculate their salaries based on their annual output, then a hack general assignment writer at a mid-sized daily makes around thirty to fifty cents a word. A slightly more highbrow writer, one who cranks out stuff for slick newsweeklies or regional travel mags, might make a dollar a word. And top freelancers who contribute to Outside or Rolling Stone have been known to pull down two and even three bucks a word.
But nobody makes four dollars a word in the newspaper game. Unless you're the Denver dailies, and you're getting your readers to pay you for the privilege of publishing the most humble yet essential artifact to be found in any daily paper: an obituary.
Obituaries used to be free of charge. The service was one way the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News connected with the community. But shortly after the joint operating agreement went into effect, the papers began assessing hefty charges to the bereaved for letting their neighbors know that Grandpa has fled this mortal coil and the funeral is on Thursday. As Michael Roberts noted in his 2002 article "Dead Lines," charging for obits was supposed to guarantee the notices got into print faster.
What it has meant in the long run is fewer and fewer obituaries. When the new policy began, the dailies were charging eleven bucks a line for an obit, but that price has gone up nearly fifty percent in the past five years, making a death notice one of the biggest gougefests out there. At sixteen bucks a line—and about four or five words per line — a notice giving dates of birth and death, service information, and a list of survivors can easily cost five hundred dollars or more. Any attempt to give a brief biography of the deceased's accomplishments would push that puppy over a thousand bucks.
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Granted, traditional family-prepared obits tend to be flowery and too detailed. But what the dailies have done forces the grieving to adopt what can only be described as a bare-bones approach, and some of them surely elect not to place a memorial at all — a loss to future historians, librarians, and genealogists, who've always depended on obituaries to supply essential details about the common folk. It's yet another way the dailies are sticking it to their readers in an effort to keep competitive with new media sources that have no community connection at all.
And it leads to some curious choices. I found out about the staggering cost of obits when I had to place one recently for my dear departed mother. The nice lady on the phone informed me that including Mom's maiden name would make for a two-line headline; shortening the name to an initial would save me thirty-two bucks. The impulse, of course, is to spare no expense, but I knew the mother in question would highly disapprove of such extravagance.
I went with the initial. –Alan Prendergast