Financing Final Farewells: Legacy.com and the Business of Death

Newspaper obits have come a long way since the Times of London started publishing its “Death’s Doings” column in the mid-19th Century. But the ongoing pressure for newspapers to generate as much revenue as possible is generating new controversy about what might be termed “death’s commerce.”

Last weekend, an artist and programmer named Maciej Ceglowski published an item to his personal blog headlined “The Great Legacy.com Swindle.” Following the suicide of a friend, Ceglowski encountered the paid obituary services of Legacy.com and The New York Times website. He was not pleased.

In a follow up e-mail, Ceglowski told me “the online obit market is something I gave zero thought to until my friend died, but strikes me as quite interesting (and somewhat sinister) now.”

He was especially upset at the Times’ failure to alert users to the $79 fee for a death notice before charging them for it — a problem Legacy.com has since corrected on its partner site with the Times. He was also bothered by an automated reminder seeking up to $79 to preserve his friend’s guest book “in perpetuity.”

Katie Falzone, Legacy.com’s director of operations, e-mailed Ceglowski early Sunday to apologize for the lack of disclosure on the Times page, a problem she attributed to an incorrect link. By the time I went to the site later Sunday, the link had been fixed and Ceglowski had updated his post to include Falzone’s e-mail.

An Issue for Print as well as Online

The controversy mirrors some of the debate surrounding paid obits and death notices on the print side, where the numbers are bigger. In April, Alan Mutter denounced the $450 sought by the San Francisco Chronicle for a 182-word obit for one of his friends, provoking this headline on his Newsosaur blog: “Death-notice price gouging: Why?” Back in 2006, Mike Hoyt, the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, went after the Kansas City Star with a piece headlined “My Mother’s Obit” published in the magazine’s May/June issue that year.

“The final bill was $404, and I paid it,” Hoyt wrote. “But I didn’t feel good about it.”

The issue will re-emerge soon as part of the great pay wall debate when The Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era newspaper in Pennsylvania begins charging out-of-area Web surfers to read local obits.

Students at the Medill School of Journalism last year produced an exhaustive study (PDF) of the past and future of obits, an analysis nicely summarized by one of their professors, E-Media Tidbits contributor Rich Gordon.

The 29-page study was sponsored by Legacy.com, which was also the focus of some of the students’ main recommendations.

Legacy.com is privately held and won’t discuss finances, except to confirm that its extensive operations — including partnerships with more than 800 newspapers and publication of obits for 7 of 10 Americans who die every day — are profitable.

“Ours is a unique business that is sometimes misunderstood,” Legacy.com’s Hayes Ferguson told me by e-mail Tuesday, “especially when the user experience — which usually comes at a very difficult time — is limited or atypical. But for the overwhelming majority of folks who have used our services — many families visit Guest Books for their loved ones every day, leaving newsy notes or posting photos of new family additions — it is a source of great comfort.”

Covering the Cost of 800,000 Monitored Comments

Ferguson, who serves as Legacy’s chief operating officer, points out that about 800,000 entries are posted to its guest books each month. She said that traffic is monitored “24/7, 365 days, by a staff of 80 part-time reviewers … to ensure that inappropriate content is not posted.”

At a time when news organizations everywhere are debating whether and how to monitor comments, Ferguson describes Legacy’s efforts in that regard as “a major undertaking (that) we and our newspaper partners feel is well worth the resources required.”

As for the automated reminders that Ceglowski objected to, Ferguson said Legacy sends “millions each year and only a tiny fraction of people complain.” She added: “When we didn’t send out those reminders, people were frustrated that the Guest Book had gone off line without our notifying them. So it’s a tricky situation that we’re always open to re-evaluating. But right now, we feel it’s the right approach.”

She said such reminders are not sent if someone has already sponsored the continuation of the guest book ($29 or a year; $79 for what it describes as “in perpetuity”). Sponsorship is limited to one person, she said.

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“We receive scores of e-mails and letters from people thanking us and our newspaper affiliates for providing a means to express condolences and remember loved ones in a carefully monitored, trustworthy place; get advice from experts; and connect with others,” Ferguson said in her e-mail. “If we didn’t charge for some of our services, the level of care we offer — both in screening content and handling customer issues — would not be possible.”

In our e-mail exchange, Ceglowski told me that he accepts “the idea that there is a ‘death industry’ and I don’t want to suggest that any paid service is off-limits.”

Relationships with Readers

He added: “I know there are businesses that find this prospect very appealing, but I hope that as a culture we decide to short-circuit this move to for-profit companies trying to own the online presence of the dead.”

A key consideration, raised by both Mutter and Hoyt in their critiques, goes to an issue of special concern to newspapers as they navigate their way through (or around) obit angles of the paid content debate: their relationship with readers.

Which readers do they care most about? And what will news organizations do to strengthen, rather than erode, the relationships they want with the customers (paying or not) they need to survive?

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