The future of newspapers is obits
by Nathan Orme

From the 10-28-2007 Daily Sparks Tribune
Reproduced by permission.
Copyright © 2007 Nathan Orme

On two occasions since I have come to work at the Sparks Tribune, people have come to our office asking if we can run an obituary for a loved one. The first one was a few months ago and I featured it in my very first column for this paper.

The second request was this week when a woman named Jeanne came in asking if we would run an obituary for her late husband. The anniversary of his death is Monday and she wanted to run just a short note to him. I told Jeanne I would be glad to run it for her on our page 2, and I even scanned in a photo of her husband to include with it (all she had was his driver’s license, so I hope he doesn’t curse me from above for using an unflattering image of him).

Jeanne told me she was going to write a nasty letter to the editor of our neighbor newspaper, casually known as the RGJ (or Reno Gazette-Journal). According to her, the RGJ (Really Greedy Jerks?) wanted to charge her $30 for her small, two-line memorial. Not a princely sum, to be sure, but enough to make her walk out the door and over to our office several miles away.

Perhaps I, too, should write a letter to the RGJ (Robbing Grieving Jeanne?) thanking them for driving people through my door. Or perhaps I should send my resume over there applying for the job of obituary editor.

When I told The Wife about this, she figured that if it cost $30 for a two-line obituary and it takes two minutes to type it up, that’s $900 an hour! I make a decent living here at The Tribune, but damn!

Naturally, I engage in just a bit of hyperbole here, and I have not called to verify the cost of obits at the RGJ (not Recommended procedure for Good Journalism). Knowing what I do of big newspapers, however, I have little doubt of its accuracy.

In truth, our paper does not charge for obits because we don’t get any. Before my tenure here, we received listings from hospitals but that stopped for some reason. I have entertained making an effort to restart that, but just haven’t gotten around to it.

If the RGJ (okay, I’m out of ideas) gets a lot of obit submissions, I can’t blame them for charging a fee. After all, someone has to take the time to make sure they are organized and input properly. Newspapers don’t publish themselves magically, nor do journalists or ad people do their jobs for the sheer thrill of it. I am also not a number cruncher, so I really can’t attest to what would be a fair fee and what would be considered outrageous.

What I do know is that to a small paper like us, the emotions of our readers are news and we don’t charge for that. If someone in our community misses a family member or friend who has died, it’s worth a reporter’s time and salary to talk to that person, get the info and take up editorial space to let our readers know.

A few months ago I finished reading the John Grisham novel The Last Juror. The main character was a young journalist who bought a small Southern newspaper. In the story, the newspaper’s previous editor had been known for filling the paper with long, detailed obituaries of anyone and everyone who died and the new owner maintained that tradition (to a slightly lesser degree) because readers loved it.

I’m not suggesting that I will start filling the pages of The Tribune with full profiles on every person in our coverage area who dies, but this fictional work does hold a thread of truth about what makes the smaller newspapers successful. People want to read about the lives and deaths of their friends and neighbors and family members.

It is my job to report what my readers want and my salary will be paid by advertisers, not people forced to buy coverage. I’ll run a page full of local obituaries before I’ll fill that same page with news from far-off countries or bonehead politicians raising money in Washington, D.C.

This mentality may keep The Sparks Tribune small forever, but being small doesn’t mean we can’t be strong.

Of course, if this column gets people lining up to submit obituaries, you might see dollar signs appear in my publisher’s eyes and I’ll be out of a job.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go scour the want ads for jobs writing obituaries.


Nathan Orme is the editor of The Sparks (Nev.) Tribune. He can be reached at


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