Ryerson busted on "obituary" use

Dateline: Thu 16 Aug 2007

Some of us are shameless. We look forward each week to Dennis Ryerson's Sunday column, wondering just how the man will disgrace himself and the noble calling he claims to represent.

Ryerson's sharing of his touchy-feelies last Sunday was to make one callow point: how wonderful it is that readers now have the freedom to say what they want at the time of a loved one's death in print, in the newspaper. He chose as his example a paid obituary that dealt, poignantly, with a young son's drug overdose. The dead man's father wrote the obit, starting with the chilling words: "Yesterday my son took his own life. He did not intend to. He did something thousands of people have and are doing, using drugs."

Ryerson then called the dad and interviewed him. But what Ryerson failed to explain is that obituaries in the paper cost a pretty price, in fact hundreds of dollars, and the Star, like other papers, takes advantage of a family's grief by charging dearly for a service that once was free.

Fortunately, reporter Mark Thompson busted Ryerson brilliantly on Romensko's blog. Here is what Thompson had to say:

"I noted that you called the father's death notice in the Indianapolis Star about his son's sad suicide an 'obituary.' Just because the

Indy paper has started using the phrase "paid obituaries" is no reason for us to embrace the bait-and-switch. Newspapers around the country are losing connection with their communities as they increasingly only run 'paid obituaries'.

"But let us reporters preserve the distinction:

"DEATH NOTICES are a form of classified ad. They used to be called in by the funeral home, and generally contained a minimal amount of info re. the deceased and the time and place of the funeral service.

"OBITUARIES were staff-produced news articles that summed up a person's life.

"PAID OBITUARIES are the bastard offspring of a newspaper business that has lost its way.

"As newspapers have stopped producing obituaries, they have begun soliciting faux articles written by the deceased relatives or the funeral home. These are not cheap; I recall a relative's "obituary" that recently ran in the Providence Journal for the tidy sum of $700 (only could people on the business side be so stupid as to wring money from those in mourning and then wonder why they are falling in public esteem).

"However, these should not be called obituaries. They are ads, plain a simple. They generally don't include less savory aspects of a person's past -- a divorce, for example -- and are crafted by the sensibilities of the survivors.

"Obituaries have an honored and esteemed place in newspaper history. Let's not sully them any more than the business side already has."

I would add that historically, the obituary "beat" was where all novice reporters started; it was a way to get down the mechanics of getting facts right and names spelled correctly. Writing an obituary was a serious job; it was, if not an esteemed job, a valuable one in that it put a reporter in touch with more readers no doubt than almost any other section of the paper, and it was an excellent training ground and stepping-stone.

That's all gone with the wind now. Maybe Ryerson can enlighten us about that some day.

Thanks to the reader who sent this my way.


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