April 8, 2010

The Newspaper Association of America’s annual conference (MediaXchange) starts Sunday, and some newspaper executives attending the event will be talking about death — that is, obituaries and death notices. It’s time, perhaps past time, for the newspaper industry to focus more attention on this topic.

Paid death notices are increasingly important to newspaper publishers. Purchased by families (or funeral directors on their behalf) to inform the community about a person’s death, funeral details and requests for charitable donations, death notices matter to news organizations for at least two reasons. First, they are a form of classified advertising that has remained relatively strong while other categories (jobs, cars, homes) have declined precipitously. Beyond that, death notices are critical to newspapers because unlike the “big three” classified categories, death notices are inextricably linked to editorial content — obituaries — that newspapers are uniquely positioned to provide, and that consumers continue to value highly.

Lose the death notice business, and newspapers risk losing more than revenue — they could lose a huge audience driver as well. And while the newspaper industry has been consumed by cost-cutting, bankruptcy proceedings and other challenges, competitive threats in the obituary/death notice space have been accumulating.

I’ve come to these conclusions after working with a class of master’s students at the Medill School of Journalism that examined the competitive landscape for obituaries and death notices, and explored new, digital forms for people to commemorate the passing of their loved ones. The students’ report, “The State of the American Obituary” (available for download), documents changes in societal norms and audience behavior that threaten newspapers’ dominance in obituaries as editorial content and death notices as a revenue stream.

It’s hard to escape the parallels with other classified categories:

  • As with employment, changes in audience behavior threaten to upend the fundamental business model;
  • As with real estate, death notice revenue passes through an intermediary (a funeral director rather than a real estate agent) whose interests are not necessarily aligned with those of the newspaper;
  • As with private party ads, people are increasingly finding ways to publish information online themselves (in memorializing the deceased, on Facebook as well as new services such as Tributes.com, launched by the founder of Monster.com).
  • And as with automotive, the media companies best positioned to compete in the 21st century are the investors and partners in aggregation services such as Cars.com.

For newspapers, the key lesson from history should be clear: Act now, before it’s too late. And don’t let the industry’s current, relatively strong position in death notices and obituaries stand in the way of innovation, collaboration and partnerships.

Medill’s Interactive Innovation Project class last fall was sponsored by Legacy.com, which partners with newspapers to publish their death notices, along with functionality such as searchability, guest-book commenting and the capacity to create memorial pages for the deceased. While I appreciate the company and its executives for supporting our class and helping create a great experience for my students, the conclusions here are my own, shaped by almost 15 years of experience in the world of online publishing.

Legacy.com now publishes death notices for about two-thirds of the people who die each day in the United States.In many ways, the story of Legacy and newspapers is a story of success. Legacy partners with more than 900 newspapers — including almost all of the largest ones. The papers pay Legacy a fee to host the death notices, which they pay out of the revenue they receive from families, typically through funeral directors. Legacy.com now publishes death notices for about two-thirds of the people who die each day in the United States, which means the site is the best single place to go online to search for information about deceased Americans.

And Legacy provides valuable services for newspapers — guest books, multimedia-uploading capabilities and, especially, a staff of editors that reviews every guest-book posting before publication for inappropriate comments. Most of the Web traffic to these enhanced death notices is generated through the newspapers’ Web sites, but users who don’t know what paper the death notice appeared in can also find it by searching on Legacy.com. Including the newspaper-branded pages that Legacy hosts, Legacy.com is now one of the nation’s 100 most-visited Web sites.

Still, the Medill students, who explored the history of obituaries and conducted considerable original research, found that Legacy and newspapers are not meeting the needs of all the key audience segments. The students concluded that there are, in fact, four separate audiences to be concerned about:

  • Family members who are trying to pay tribute to the life of a loved one, often while making arrangements for a funeral or working to announce the death;
  • Friends and acquaintances wishing to learn more about the person who died, as well as get information about the funeral, visitation and burial;
  • Obituary enthusiasts, or people who appreciate obituaries as a narrative format delivering “compelling stories about noteworthy lives”;
  • People with niche or affinity interests — such as stock-car racing or gospel music — who want to read about those who’ve had a lasting effect on those fields.

Historically, via death notices and obituaries, newspapers met the needs of all of these audience segments. But changes in technology, media usage and cultural norms are combining to threaten newspapers’ dominance of this category.

In print as well as online editions, newspapers are still largely satisfying the needs of people who want information about those who died recently in their communities. But other people want different things that neither Legacy nor newspapers is providing. To be sure, Legacy provides a valuable service by delivering a searchable database of death notices, enabling someone interested in sending flowers or attending a memorial service to find that information. But in many cases, this information can take a day or two to make its way from the funeral home to the newspaper to the Legacy.com Web site — a lack of timeliness that seems antiquated in today’s always-on, fast-paced world.

Obituary enthusiasts and people with niche or affinity interests don’t have a place where they can go to find professionally written stories about interesting lives of people who’ve died recently. Legacy publishes obituaries from the Associated Press, and has begun to organize them around affinity interest categories. But in general, the best obituary about someone who passed away recently was probably published in a newspaper near the home of the deceased — and this obituary typically does not appear on Legacy.com. So if you are a person with a niche interest — say, NASCAR racing — and a retired driver dies, you are likely to celebrate his life on a racing-oriented community site rather than on Legacy.com or the Web site of the newspaper published in the driver’s hometown.

Meanwhile, people who want to pay tribute to the life of someone close to them increasingly have other options besides buying a death notice in the local paper. Already it is common for people who knew someone who died recently to post a message or tribute on that person’s Facebook page. We can be certain that this type of activity will increase as more people integrate online social networks into their offline lives.

And there are a variety of other sites — Tributes.com being the most serious competitor– that also now provide these services and charge families to make use of tools that make it easy to publish photos and multimedia about the deceased. Over time, the Medill class concluded, paid online memorials will substitute for newspaper death notices — and the revenue associated with these memorials will be enormous. Legacy offers these kinds of services through a separate site called Legacy Memorial Websites, but the Medill student researchers concluded this service could not reach its potential without a design overhaul and substantially more promotion.

Back in December, the Medill class delivered a lengthy report to Legacy with recommendations on how the company could improve its services and confront increasing competition. Medill released the report publicly this week after giving the company time to consider how to respond. The students had two key recommendations:

  • Develop a new site (the students proposed the name “Legacy Chronicles”) geared to people interested in reading journalist-written obituaries — those who appreciate obits as a literary and journalistic form, and those who are primarily interested in learning more about the life of a prominent person who has died recently. The idea was to create a site where, every day, users can find the most interesting obituaries of the most interesting people.
  • Retool Legacy.com to focus on the needs of families and friends of the deceased, offering them — for a one-time fee, or an annual subscription — a variety of easy-to-use multimedia tools to memorialize their loved ones.

For now, at least, Legacy executives have decided not to create a separate obituary-focused site. Instead, the company is focusing on developing a new area of Legacy.com called “Legacies,” which organizes Associated Press obituaries and Legacy’s guestbooks into categories such as baseball players and jazz musicians. The new Legacies site will “address the needs of obituary fans and others who want to explore some of the rich life stories stored in our database,” said Hayes Ferguson, the company’s chief operating officer, in a written response to the class’s recommendations.

Legacy has also made some improvements to Legacy Memorial Websites, such as adding the capability to “light a virtual candle” for the deceased — an idea recommended by the Medill class.

I would argue, though, that these changes are too incremental, and that it is in the newspaper industry’s interest to develop — or help develop — both types of sites recommended by the Medill class.

An online-memorials site that newspapers can make available to grieving families (and to funeral directors to offer to their clients) would serve as a real source of additional revenue now. With more than 200,000 people dying each month in the United States, it doesn’t take a large percentage to pay for online memorials to generate a large amount of money. A successful online-memorials site would also serve as a hedge against the likelihood that the classified death-notice business will decline along with print newspaper circulation. The approach could be similar to what’s happened in the automotive and recruitment advertising: newspapers create or partner with a national aggregator and technology provider (a la Cars.com, CareerBuilder.com or Monster.com) to generate new revenue and compete successfully with sites unaffiliated with newspapers.

Meanwhile, a news-based Web site focusing on obituaries about interesting and accomplished people should attract a substantial audience — both obituary enthusiasts and people with niche/affinity interests — and generate new advertising revenue. With the right mix of on-site content and links to material elsewhere, such a site could also drive traffic to newspaper Web sites.

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The Medill class recommended that Legacy and newspapers should collaborate on these new initiatives, but that Legacy should “go it alone” if the company’s newspaper partnerships can’t be successfully extended into obituaries and online memorials. Legacy executives say they don’t want to “go it alone” — they want to partner.

“We remain steadfast in our belief that our success is intertwined with that of our newspaper affiliates,” Ferguson said. “Without newspapers, Legacy.com would not be able to continue to provide such timely and comprehensive information on such a large scale. And without Legacy.com, newspapers would not be able to benefit from being part of a large network of newspapers supported by a thoughtful partner. In short, it is in our best interest, as well as that of others involved in this category — newspapers, funeral homes and, most significantly, the families of the deceased and their friends — to work together.”

It may not be easy to figure out the terms of a broader collaboration, partly because some newspaper executives are wary of Legacy and feel the company could become a competitive threat for audiences and revenue. But this is exactly the reaction many newspaper executives had to collaborating with Internet companies in other classified advertising categories. And it seems clear that the companies that participated in building newspaper-affiliated classified sites (CareerBuilder.com, Cars.com) are in much better position today than the ones that tried to compete independently. I’d hate to see newspapers make the same mistake with death notices and obituaries.

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Rich is an online news industry veteran who currently serves as the new media program chair and associate professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of…
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