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In a few years, people will probably wonder what the fuss was about the rapid decline of newspaper popularity in the early 21st century.

Historians will argue whether the final nail in the coffin came from chain ownership (a safe bet), arrogance (another safe bet and might just be a synonym for chain ownership), or technology.

Or it could just be that newspapers are dying because of the way they have treated the dead.

At one time, all small to medium-sized newspapers in the United States ran complete obituaries of everyone who died. It didn’t matter if it were the richest man or town or the town drunk, a 102-year-old who lived her entire life in the community or an infant, the passage was considered newsworthy.

It was not only a matter of fairness, but it was good business. Everyone had an investment in the local newspaper and the obituary pages always ranked at the top in readership surveys.

That common sense approach to journalism began to die when newspaper owners, after running away advertisers with a glut of special sections and greed to boost the kind of profit margins that other businesses could only dream of, began to think of the deaths of human beings as just another revenue source.

I was the editor of the Carthage Press, a small Missouri daily in the 1990s when the regional newspaper, the Joplin Globe, (or perhaps I should say the chain that owned the newspaper at that time) decided to charge for obituaries. If your family paid, your death was newsworthy. If not, it received a brief mention, including the time and place for the funeral service.

Perhaps it is just coincidence, but from that point on, I have seen a deterioration in the Globe as a community newspaper. When the biggest newspaper in the area began charging for the service, it was only a matter of time before all of them did. Thankfully, by the time that happened, I was a teacher and was no longer in the newspaper business.

When the Globe moved into the internet era and established a website, it maintained the same division- obituaries for those who could afford it, and death notices for those who could not.

This week, that approach changed.

Now if you visit the Globe website and want to know when or where a funeral is going to take place, you have to either be a subscriber to the print edition or to the Globe’s e-edition.  It doesn’t matter if you are a friend or family member from out of state who has no connection with Joplin and no need for subscribe to a Joplin newspaper, if you don’t, you’re out of luck.

The timing was bad for the hard working staff at the Joplin Globe. During the past year, it has received well-deserved attention from across the nation, including a recent documentary about its courageous response to the May 22, 2011, tornado, that killed 161 people, including one Globe staff member, and displaced about a third of the Globe’s workers.

The Globe’s corporate management, the good folks at Community Newspapers Holding, apparently decided it was time for its newspapers to milk a few cents more out of the death industry.

I am sure it will not be long before someone sets up a website where obituaries can be found and when that happens another reason to read newspapers will have vanished forever- the same fate as classified ads and eventually legal notices when people come to the realization that the only reason those are still in newspapers is to prop up their bottom line- the taxpayers would probably be served just as well in this day and age by having legal notices posted on internet sites.

Writing these words does not come easily to me. I have loved newspapers since I was six years old and my dad, a truck driver, brought me copies of the Kansas City Star and Tulsa World to read. We always had subscriptions to the Joplin Globe, Neosho Daily News and the Newton County News. I spent 22 years as a newspaper reporter and editor and loved every minute of it. The rapid decline of newspapers breaks my heart, but once they started being just another stock market commodity instead of a public service, they sealed their own fate.

When, and if, the newspaper industry dies, a victim of its own greed and incompetence, I am sure there will be some venue where its obituary will be written- and no one will have to pay to see it.

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Comment Preferences

  •  This could have been written about so many (6+ / 0-)

    aspects of our culture:

    The rapid decline of newspapers breaks my heart, but once they started being just another stock market commodity instead of a public service, they sealed their own fate.
    Education, health care, communication, transportation and even our government.  All commodities with price tags, now.  Future generations will wonder why we sold our lives so cheaply.  

    "When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." Dom Helder Camara

    by koosah on Tue Jun 05, 2012 at 10:23:59 AM PDT

    •  Once You Remove Compressive Individual Taxation (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      phonegery, Senor Unoball, JKTownsend

      such that most gains can be taken home no matter how great, the economy comes to be dominated by the few sectors that can produce jackpot incomes and returns consistently. The others will be vulture-capitalized to produce jackpots and then die.

      Those of us from 2 generations past who warned as we launched all this also wonder why.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Tue Jun 05, 2012 at 11:14:31 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Many newspapers thought they had opinion control, (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    weck, Senor Unoball, JKTownsend

    only to find that swinging away from the center and reporting just the facts hurt them.

    I used to take the paper. The monthly price got higher, but the sections got thinner, the opinions in general were more prominently  (right wing) for what should have been a 'reporting facts' news story.

    Eventually, I just stopped taking any paper no matter where I moved but that didn't keep them from trying to peddle their fish wraps monthly.

    Years ago when the declines started, those calling would argue with you that you needed the paper. Now, only sometimes, do you find someone who is still a bit stunned that you do not want the paper and that you want them to stop calling.

    Their last ditch efforts were pretty blatantly right wing in nature because they tried to insist that if you did not take the paper, you were not a part of the community and somehow a lesser citizen. I'm not sure who this worked on but I found it pathetic and laughable.

    -6.38, -6.21: Lamented and assured to the lights and towns below, Faster than the speed of sound, Faster than we thought we'd go, Beneath the sound of hope...

    by Vayle on Tue Jun 05, 2012 at 10:27:55 AM PDT

  •  The Rochester, NY "Democrtat and Chronicle" has (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Senor Unoball, susanala, JKTownsend

    recently turned their Sunday edition into something like USA Today Light, with so little local information and nothing in the feature sections that wasn't already in other media.  This is a Gannett paper; they charged me for an Obit in 2001, recently raised the price of Sunday to three dollars (or more) to those not right in the metro area and they don't include the coupon circulars consistently out here either.

      It's getting to be too much work to bother with this paper, and I am also a lover of reading the paper (with coffee, at my newly-retired leisure). If they are losing the "I love to read the paper on Sunday morning" demographic, then this rag is doomed.

    If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever.

    by weck on Tue Jun 05, 2012 at 10:39:14 AM PDT

  •  Hadn't thought of it that way, but it makes sense (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    weck, JKTownsend

    Similar are wedding announcements. Used to be anybody getting married could get an announcement with photo. Now you're charged, and heavily, if you want a photo. I suppose you can still get a brief announcement for little or no charge, but let's face it: People, and their families, want to see a large photo with all the hoop-de-doo listed.

    I had a long career in small dailies and weeklies. My first newspaper job, in fact, was a short distance down from you on Highway 71, at the Benton County (AR) Daily Democrat. (A fine li'l paper, by the way, but run by a right-winger who was mortified that the paper he bought, and which had been in existence for more'n 100 years, had the word "Democrat" in the name. So he changed the paper's name. Steve Trollinger, you were a dick. I digress.)

    When papers don't provide what the readers want or need, they die out. It's really not hard to understand.

    Too bad the publishers can only see profit or loss, though of course those are important. But chain ownership does not see how newspapers are one of the lifebloods to their communities, recording the history of their towns through tragedies, weddings and deaths, school sports, police reports, council meetings, garden clubs, church picnics, and so much more.

    I still believe that it's the small dailies and weeklies that will survive. Those papers will still provide what a large city/statewide paper cannot provide: city council and school board meetings, high school and junior-high sports, neighborhood coverage.

    For fun: Here is a link to the Arcata Eye police blotter. This is the best police blotter ever, in the history of US journalism. I mean, it's taking one of the most routine things ever, and making it creative and funny, without missing the seriousness of what's being reported.

    Police Log link

    I'm not familiar precisely with exactly what I said, but I stand by what I said, whatever it was. -- Mitt the Twit

    by Senor Unoball on Tue Jun 05, 2012 at 10:40:47 AM PDT

    •  Weddings, anniversaries, etc. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Senor Unoball, weck, koosah

      You are right on the money. Deaths, births, weddings, anniversaries- those are the life's blood of a community newspaper and once the chain ownerships decided to charge for them, they may have picked up a few cents, but they ended up losing many customers and future customers. I can remember when Saturday and Sunday editions were full of pictures of weddings and anniversaries; now, it is a relative handful every weekend. Greed has cut off the connection people had with their newspapers.

  •  you left something out. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Senor Unoball, JKTownsend

    i don't think it is totally fair to blame the newspapers for their own demise.

    it isn't just being stock commodities - newspapers have ALWAYS depended on advertisers to cover the cost of their product.  pennies on the dollar - and now, even dollars, don't cover the cost of output (from manufacture, print, delivery AND paying those who complie and construct the paper).

    with the severe demise of the economy fromoutsourcing, rise of the internet, etc., the physical advertisers aren't there any longer.

    the sunday papers were the heavy ad days - special sections JUST on ads - but, it is no longer so!  the local businesses either aren't there or don't have the money to invest in ads that won't be read.

    take this a step further and look at the demise of local book stores, hard goods stores.

    when was the last time you tried to purchase yard goods, for example (fabric).  there are very few stores around that sell fabric now.  you have the chains like beverlys or jo'ann's.  few individual shops still exist.  extend that thought to the lack of domestic mills that produce fabric!  now it's china and  other off-shore manufacturers.

    newspapers are just one aspect of our lives that are disappearing due to the collapse of our domestic production/manufacture/economy.

    it all goes back to what is made/manufactured/sold/done on the home shores, doesn't it.

    one again, i mutter my sardonic curse "THANK you, ronnie reagan" for killing the u.s. economy and so many related industries!  we sure have become a "service" economy, haven't we - we serve the other successful economic models of the third world countries we tried to exploit!

    i loathe ronald reagan and his puppeteers for so many reasons - this just being one more!

  •  Well We Decided to Destroy the American Economy (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Senor Unoball, JKTownsend, Spoc42

    in 1981. No real surprise that any sector of it is finally dying off. The main reasons are the same as for all the other declining sectors, with a few specifics to the newspaper industry tossed in.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Tue Jun 05, 2012 at 11:17:22 AM PDT

  •  Their loss. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JKTownsend

    whole generations of young people were lost as future readers, when they decided it was too much trouble to print youth sports scores.  I remember grabbing the sports page before Dad could read it in order to see my listed!  I was so excited!  The habit of reading the paper has to begin somewhere.

    We can have democracy in this country, or we can have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both. Louis Brandeis

    by Ohkwai on Tue Jun 05, 2012 at 11:41:26 AM PDT

  •  My husband works for a family owned newspaper. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JKTownsend

    We have had many 'discussions' about people now having to pay for obits. What most folks don't know is that some funeral homes put the cost of an obit on their bill anyway.

    •  Of COURSE the nickle twisters at the funeral home (0+ / 0-)

      would do that. There is an industry that performs a vital functionwhich has chosen since the 19th century to specialize in screwing people at their most vulnerable hour.

      We are the principled ones, remember? We don't get to use the black hats' tricks even when it would benefit us. Political Compass: -6.88, -6.41

      by bmcphail on Tue Jun 05, 2012 at 06:23:26 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  when visiting the midwest in '01 (0+ / 0-)

    i bought a copy of the st louis post dispatch.  there were 12 obits that day.  every one of them died in their 80s, every one of them had been born in east st louis, IL and none of them still lived there.  they had relocated to the suburbs and exurbs and out of the dying city of ESL.

    a friend of mine said our local paper should just drop national and international news, since it's a lot more productive to get that online and instead concentrate on being the best local news source out there.  old ways die hard, though and perhaps the time for radical change is past, and what remains of it will just fold...

  •  I was a college journalism major 1970-74 ... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ZedMont

    prior to, during and after Watergate, when Woodward and Bernstein and other investigative journalists were heroes, daily syndicated columnists actually produced scoops (and not just opinions), all aspects of community life were seen as important for coverage, and wedding announcements and obits were a service. Newspapers were part of the fabric of daily life, taken for granted, and had a certain gravitas. I couldn't wait to start my journalism career and stuck with it until 1987. The writing was on the wall by that time. First the afternoon dailies died, then two-newspaper towns became one-newspaper towns, chains such as Gannett started buying out the remaining dailies and weeklies, and USA Today became the template for dumbed-down reporting, editing and graphics. I loved reading the newspapers through my childhood and even into the early 1990s, despite the decline of quality. Now what's left of journalism is a young person's game, with lots of turnover and no institutional memory or community history in place. The internet is the final nail in the coffin. I admit I get most of my news online now as well as comic strips and other features I love. The fourth estate will be late to its own funeral, and someone else will write the obit for it.

    Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me, "how good, how good does it feel to be free? " And I answer them most mysteriously, "are birds free from the chains of the skyway? " (Bob Dylan)

    by JKTownsend on Tue Jun 05, 2012 at 03:43:06 PM PDT

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