Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Obituary fees

The economy and political terrorism were a distant second and third on the Des Moines Register's letters page - the most input by far came from their new obituaries policy last week.

Readers, and some of the state's leading collegiate journalism profs, are challenging the policy, which apparently will require families to pay $3.75 a line if they feel their loved one was worth more than a basic eight-line announcement. Cause of death can apparently be kept out of "paid" obits for the sake of "sensitivity," unlike the rest of the obits and past policy.

Kathleen Richardson, executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, warns that the Register policy means that how a person dies isn't important unless they were a "public figure." Telling people's stories, including the last chapter, is vital to maintaining a sense of community, she argues against the Register policy.

Drake journalism professor Herb Strentz wonders in print if the Register will next start charging people $150 to keep their drunk driving arrests out of the paper.

Out of fairness to the Register, a whole lot of people die every day in Iowa. And obituaries are being discussed in the upper offices of newspapers everywhere. Costs of paper, ink and labor get higher, and the feeling is that the cost of subscriptions must be kept low. (Imagine, a newspaper full of original writing, crucial information for daily planning and photographs can be had for about 32 cents here, less than the cost for a small cup of coffee or the smallest pack of gum.)

With this economic paradox comes the need for other revenue streams. Many papers look at the obituaries and the amount of space they take up, and see a chance to offset cost a bit. The state's largest paper is now among them, it seems.

We've resisted that at the Pilot. If there's one thing it doesn't seem right to charge for, it is an obituary. It doesn't just serve the family's scrapbook, it's the story of a person's death, a part of the ebb and flow of the community.

Often, obits are as interesting as any article we could dream up. I find people who have had the most interesting lives - war heroes and baseball stars and silent movie piano players and corn-husking champs and collectors of horseshoes and tellers of tall tales and doting grandparents to half a hundred little ones. If not for the obituaries, their stories might never be told, and that would be a great loss.

Every paper has to wrestle with how much space to give, and what rules to apply in order to keep things reasonable and fair. In some areas, it's so common to charge for the obituaries that the funeral homes have it built into their fees to the families. They are confused by the fact that you don't want their check in the mail.

I don't really want to be the guy to dig a little deeper into the pocket of an aging widow or grieving children, however. That $3.75 isn't going to help me sleep at night.

Some papers charge for birth announcements, engagements announcements, school lunch menus, items for their arts schedule. After all, how many businesses give away their services for free?

Still, a community newspaper plays a critical role in the sense of who and what a community is. I like being able to celebrate lives, all the way from the happy announcements of people's births, through their major life moments, and into the bittersweet experience of their deaths, and those final paragraphs to look back over their lives have never seemed to be too much to ask for.

As much as possible, we try to go by what the family wants instead of what the Associated Press stylebook or the cash flow books dictate. I won't criticize the Register's obit policy, but I sure don't plan to follow their lead on this one, either.