Write your own ending

Author: Bill Mitchell '71

The homily—and the obit—got me wondering about the shape of journalism to come.

The subject of both was my friend, Ray Peters. With his dad, Mr. Peters had built the house next door to ours in Groton, Connecticut. For 50 years, Ray and his wife, Mary, challenged that bath-and-a-half colonial by making room for a bulging community of family and friends.

It was a chilly, drizzly day this past February when many of us showed up for services at the local parish where Ray, at 87, had served as one of the more senior altar boys. Near the end of the homily, I was delighted when the Rev. Dariusz Dudzik began reading from The Day, the paper that gave me my first break more than 40 years ago.

Father Dudzik pointed out that The Day‘s obituary had captured the ever-humble Ray far more eloquently than he ever could in a homily. Pulling out the clipping, he began reading: "’The children are grateful and proud to have been raised by such a kind, caring, unselfish man who provided a great role model for all.’"

That’s not the sort of thing I would have written during my time on The Day’s obit desk in the 1960s. Unless the deceased was a public figure—or the death resulted from unusual circumstances—we rarely interviewed survivors. We usually functioned more like ad takers than journalists, transcribing dates and survivors from funeral homes, assembling formulaic summaries stacked like so many concrete blocks on the obit page.

It turned out that reporters at The Day had nothing to do with Ray’s obit. It was written, instead, by a newcomer to the genre, Maureen Westbrook. Her portrait of Ray needed none of the attribution you’d find in a traditional obit. Maureen had drafted it on the pad by her night stand, choosing her words with the authority vested in her as one of Ray’s six grown children.

Maureen not only did the work. The Peters family paid the paper to run it.

Welcome to the swirling world of news: stories and images created by readers as well as staffers, money made and lost in new ways every day. So-called user-generated content is spreading across platforms and borders, with The New York Times incorporating reader tips about destinations in its travel section, CNN creating an iReport.com site to showcase viewer videos and the BBC supplementing its coverage of breaking news around the world with cell phone videos from witnesses.

Paid obits have been around for a while. But they offer a glimpse of the forces at play as newspapers figure out their futures.

Amid all the change, a lot remains the same for newspapers, especially their roles in a democracy: holding the powerful accountable, providing independent scrutiny of critical issues, equipping citizens with the news and information they need to govern themselves.

All that takes money, lots of it, which gets us to the commercial dimension of obits like Ray’s. Instead of paying its own staff to report and write an account of his life and death, the paper charged the Peters family about $400 to run Maureen’s 474 words, along with a small photo. The online version cost $10 extra.

The Internet drain
That’s small change in the scheme of things, just pebbles on a beach that newspapers are still struggling to shore up 15 years after the Internet began crashing their way with wave after revenue-draining wave.

At the San Jose Mercury News in the early 1990s, I found myself on the front lines of a battle that is looking more and more like a struggle for newspapers’ survival. Partnering with America Online before the World Wide Web was even invented, we sat around with AOL founder Steve Case and imagined scenarios of charging people to create content that we’d charge other people to read. (Sounds a bit like paid obits, doesn’t it?)

Our venture with AOL worked only modestly, and briefly, until the Web came along and turned everything upside down. By the time Gary Farrugia took over as editor and publisher of The Day in 2001, an established but still scrappy collection of Web start-ups was busy chiseling newspaper margins closer to the bone.

Soon, for all the tools that the Web handed journalists, its hugely disruptive surprise became apparent: the decoupling of news from the advertising revenue that had paid the newsroom bills. Instead of buying a classified ad in their local paper, millions of Americans were turning instead to sites like Monster.com or Craigslist to find a job or sell a car.

With classified-ad income dropping, newspapers looked elsewhere, including such formerly free categories of news as obits, births, weddings and anniversaries.

Farrugia says The Day continues to report the deaths of local residents, very briefly and free, if the family requests it. The deaths of prominent local figures still rate staff-written accounts. Neither of those avenues would have worked to tell Ray Peters’ story or, for that matter, the story of Larry Farrugia, who passed away last July in Michigan. His obit in The Day was written by his son, Gary, the publisher.

“My fear of corrupting editorial standards was superseded by the wonderful writing we started getting on the [obits] page,” Gary Farrugia says. “We learned how colorful people’s lives were, and we learned that a lot more careful attention and emotion would go into obits written by surviving loved ones than the ones written by somebody working the night city desk.”

Not all paid obits are sentimental. When Walter S. Hauck Jr. died in January, his Day obit listed the cause of death as “lung insufficiency due to a long time tobacco addiction” and attributed his failed aspirations to the papacy to “his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church and advocacy of atheism.”

Says Farrugia: “Obits are always well-read, but everybody reads these things.”

While The Day is not taking in as much revenue from charging for milestone announcements as it’s lost in the big classified categories, Farrugia describes himself as “cautiously bullish” about the paper’s financial outlook.

Other analysts are less optimistic about newspapers, prompting discussion of obits in another context. “Newspapers are still far from dead,” my Poynter colleague, Rick Edmonds, wrote in his latest analysis for the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “But the language of the obituary is creeping in. The industry has been in declining health for some time now. It got sicker rather than better in 2007, and 2008 offers no prospect of a quick cure.”

Whatever scenario unfolds for newspapers, the future is not entirely in the hands of the journalists, techies and financial executives charged with running media companies. It’s also in yours. Dan Gillmor, a former colleague at the Mercury News and author of We the Media, builds on a simple premise: with any given story, at least a portion of the audience knows a lot more about the subject than the journalists producing it.

Relatively little of the content generated by readers or viewers matches the standards of independence, verification and professional polish demanded of journalists. But more and more journalists are mustering the humility to acknowledge such contributions as an important piece of the emerging journalistic landscape.

Once The Day posted Maureen’s story about Ray online, the paper linked it to a guestbook on Legacy.com where I joined a couple of dozen others in posting brief tributes.

Several days after I’d returned to balmy Florida from the funeral, an email popped into my laptop from Ray’s eldest son, Tom. He’d just read my note on Legacy and was following up with a story about a stocking cap easing his New England freeze, the cap my mother made for him before she died in 1995.

Hardly the stuff of news as we’ve known it. But for me, an encouraging experience of media helping knit together the connective tissues of friendship and community life.

As the future of news takes shape, I’m betting that journalists will be making more and more room for the likes of Maureen and Tom—and the stories they can tell.

Bill Mitchell worked as a reporter and an editor at the Detroit Free Press before becoming director of electronic publishing at the San Jose Mercury News in 1992. He has directed Poynter Online, a website for journalists, since 1999.