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Report Warns Newspapers to Protect Obituary Franchise

As audiences move to social networks, online memorials could replace death notices

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December 3, 2009 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- In the universe of the obituary, the newspaper is still king, a new report from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism finds. Newspapers continue to be the primary way that news of deaths is communicated. 

But despite this dominance, the report warns newspapers to adapt to changes in audience behavior and technology that will alter the way Americans memorialize the dead. Already interactive memorial pages exist on the Web that offer "guestbooks" and opportunities for "virtual" mourners to add notes, photos and videos.

"Today the printed obituary is the most effective way to reach people interested in a given death," said Ian Monroe, co-author of the study titled "The State of the American Obituary." "But just as newspaper's classified advertising moved to the Web, it's likely that obituaries will, too."

The study was written and researched by graduate students in Medill's fall Interactive Innovation Project class. A blog documents their exploration of obituaries and online memorials. Both the report and blog are at http://obitresearch.com/.

The students found that dedicated obituary readers are an important audience for newspapers, both in print and online. Obituaries constitute some of the most popular and widely searched-for content on newspaper Web sites, the study found. Because most newspapers charge families to publish death notices in print, deaths in newspapers' communities also generate an important revenue stream.

Legacy.com, an online obituary service that aggregates 70 percent of American death notices and obituaries, sponsored the study. With 7 million unique visitors per month and more than 750 newspaper partners, Legacy.com is one of the nation's 100 most-visited Web sites.

According to the study, "virtual memory gardens" and "memorial nets" began to appear on the Internet around 1994, when the first widely available Web browsers were introduced. "The online memorial today essentially moves the act of grieving from the church, funeral home or cemetery to the laptop, and creates a community of mourners," Monroe said. 

Group memorials for people killed in national tragedies also are increasingly common, according to the report. Facebook groups, for example, honor victims of Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, the massacre at Virginia Tech and the recent Fort Hood shootings. When a popular online remembrance page for war veterans was temporarily removed from Legacy.com and replaced with a survey for the Medill obituary study, users were quick to complain.

"The State of the American Obituary" authors surveyed 400 Legacy.com users during a one-month period. More than 80 percent reported visiting the obituary section of their local newspaper. Only 22 percent had ever viewed an online memorial on a social networking site. Nonetheless, half of the survey respondents 45 years of age and older said they had visited Facebook within the last month.

In addition to Monroe, the principal authors of the report are Ashley Bates and Ming Zhuang. Jake Bressler, Alina Dain, Chris Deaton, Kate Goshorn and Tiffany Glick conducted research. Faculty advisers were Rich Gordon, associate professor and director of digital innovation and Owen Youngman, Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.