The Start of Shrinking Obituaries

Lifestories find a place to be told.

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Throughout the early 2000s, the decline of print newspapers has been staggering. The first decade of the century brought with it the bankruptcy of numerous long-established newspapers in large metropolitan cities. These bankruptcies centered on the recent losses in revenue as a result of new competition with online sites like craigslist.com according to a study published in Management Science, which has cost the newspaper industry $5.4 billion between 2000–2007 exacerbated by the lack of buyers for the larger companies once revenue all but disappeared. (1) Advertising revenue for US newspapers fell from nearly $70 billion in 2000 to roughly $15 billion by 2015, and over the same period, the number of newspaper firms in the US dropped from 6,200 firms to just over 4,200.

With this rapid decline in revenue, new strategies and sacrifices had to be developed and adapted. Many journalists and obituaries had to find a new place in the world. The San Francisco Chronicle avoided closing with deep concessions from employees, while the Tucson Citizen, Arizona’s oldest paper, ceased publication altogether.

Newspapers faced a need to re-strategize their plan with some of the more successful surviving papers building their online pay-to-read subscribers, building educational publishing departments, and exploring other new and creative forms of diversification. This shift in corporate strategy also contributed to the forced cut back of sections like the obituaries to fulfill a strategic business model.

Over the same period, the cost of a standard “traditional” 4.5-inch obituary in the Kansas City Star jumped from less than $200 to roughly $450 by 2020, according to a funeral director in the area. Second-day printings of a four-line service announcement, which states basic abbreviated information, jumped from approximately $25 to nearly $90 over the same period.

“Simply put,” wrote The Buffalo News owner Warren Buffett during this re-strategizing of the newspaper industry, “If cable and satellite broadcasting, as well as the Internet, had come along first, newspapers, as we know them probably, would never have existed.” (2)

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With the subtle connections that come with identifying a person’s life documented in an obituary, we start to chip away at our own aversion to the subject of death. We encounter the finite amount of time we have, and with it, the stresses that go unsaid and the plans that are left unplanned when we avoid the inevitable.

Some believe there is no reason to “rock the boat” on the subject of death without need, for fear of jinxing the idea. If we instead ease into the thought of dying with small hints like a glance at the obituary page, we stand to benefit far more, igniting thoughts about death and the value of our lives in small ways, little by little with each view.

This exposure allows us to ease into the conversation with ourselves, at our own pace, bringing the benefits of lower stress and lower death anxiety once we confront these ideas.

Encountering death in small ways, like reading a somber or comical obituary, exposes the reader to the subject of an eventual end. A simple search online of comical obituaries

will produce several results that range from total fabrications to harshly accurate portrayals. The obituaries highlight those who have chosen to share their obituary information in a way that eased the hurdles present confronting death. In some ways, the very act of confronting the idea of death can promote increased mindfulness, expanded self-analysis, and deeper contemplation.

For more interesting topics that discuss death, dying, and bereavement in a technology world, check out: Digital Remains by J.H. Harrington. Available anywhere books are sold.

(1) Robert Seamans and Feng Zhu, “Responses to Entry in Multi-Sided Markets: The Impact of Craigslist on Local Newspapers,” (PDF). Management Science. 60 (2) (February 2014): 476–493, Accessed May 29, 2020.

(2) John Morton, “Buffeted: Newspapers Are Paying the Price for Short- sighted Thinking”. American Journalism Review. Archived from the original on 2008–10–10. (October–November 2007), Retrieved 2020–02–10.

Author of ‘Digital Remains’ available now. Proven Industry Expert. Sharing thoughts and ideas on the world we live in from birth to death and beyond.

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