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Newspaper talk

I am a month into the start of my 10th year as a teaching journalist ("professor" still doesn't sound right) at St. Bonaventure University. But it seems hardly a month goes by when I don't talk with friends or former colleagues about the state of affairs at the Olean Times Herald, where I worked for 20 years before university life rescued me.

Today's conversation involved an exchange with one of my longtime friends from Olean's West End. He lives on the east end of Pennsylvania now, and he sent this e-mail observation today:

"Many moons ago, I remember you writing about the evolution of obits once the OTH started charging for those postings. Today's issue of the online OTH has the following obit that caught my attention: PULASKI — Raymond Anthony Krist, 55, of Pulaski, formerly of Salamanca, crossed the Rainbow Bridge to be reunited with his beloved cat Surprise, parakeet Happy and other pets he had during his lifetime. I have often wondered who composes those things, the funeral director or an SBU grad."

It didn't take much time to compose a reply to him:

"I'm reading you loud and clear about the obituaries. The last I heard, the cost of running an obit was in the neighborhood of $80. As a result, since what was formerly a pure news item has become, in essence, an advertisement (i.e., space someone is buying to run copy in), the people who are buying that space pretty much have free reign to write what they want. Thus the endless stream of obituaries that begin with anything but the concise yet functional 'died.'

"The larger issue is that for a small-town newspaper, obituaries are news. Charging for them may fatten the newspaper's bottom line in the short run, but in the long run, especially as obituary rates rise, the OTH is making itself less relevant to readers as fewer and fewer obituaries get published. And take a look at the wedding and engagement announcements. Back In The Day, the OTH used to run a solid two pages of those items every day. Now, the trickle has slowed to perhaps half a dozen in a week, probably because the OTH has priced itself out of that market, leading to (again) decreased relevance.

"I read once that the number of letters to the editor is a good indicator of a newspaper's health. During my last year there as editor, we ran, on average, 116 letters a month (I kept track over the course of a year). These days, an editorial page with no letters is more common than a page with letters, and a page with more than two letters is uncommon indeed.

"Lots of other things that Olean readers viewed as news (City Court, Traffic Court) have long since disappeared, and with increasingly protective privacy laws for patients, the daily hospital listings represent a far-from-comprehensive census of who's in the hospital—which is news in a small town.

"I think someone with the time and inclination to do so could easily set up an alternative Web newspaper that would publish obits, engagements and weddings for free (with editorial control of the obit reverting to this newspaper's editor). I don't think it would take much to kick the feet out from under the OTH. If this site had some actual reporting instead of stenography from meetings, I think it would draw a considerable number of readers and thus draw local advertisers too.

"Not that I'm thinking of doing anything like that after I retire."


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 24th, 2010 09:07 pm (UTC)
One of the things I'm interested in studying the further I get in grad school/academic world is small-town newspapers. My thesis is a look at journalists' routines in the transition era from print to print/online, and I'm intrigued by how small-town papers are handling that.

Interesting post, coach.
Sep. 24th, 2010 09:21 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Brian. I hope all is well with you and yours.

If you've talked to Chuck lately, no doubt you've heard about how Bubble Boy and his paper's website have kicked the OTH around pretty good in covering two major fires in Allegany County. John would be a good person for you to talk to.

Given our memories of working with him, it seems a little strange to be suggesting him as a source for a grad school thesis! But seriously, I've got a lot of respect for what he's doing.
Sep. 24th, 2010 09:30 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the tip! I want to find someone at the OTH, too, but I do think Le Boy du Bubble would be perfect.
Sep. 24th, 2010 11:32 pm (UTC)
It just struck me, Bo, that perhaps the OTH's marriage and engagement announcements have dwindled so much compared to the obits because social media have shouldered aside the newspaper as a way to spread that news. Maybe it's a generational thing: Older people who die don't have access to or use technology to convey personal news, while younger people who are engaged or getting married tend to spread the word by Facebook, etc.

If true, this suggests a downward trend to come in printed obituaries and the corresponding revenue.

Sep. 26th, 2010 01:54 am (UTC)
Interesting thought, and worthy of study. I think it speaks to newspapers' ... I don't want to say irrelevance, but rather the fact that the traditional markers of a newspaper's status is changing. It used to be classified ads, obits, engagement announcements, etc. Things that aren't fancy, stuff people don't hold symposia over, but the things that, day-to-day, keep the engines running.

But now, that's changed. Other, online media are taking over the precedence. The challenge for the newspaper industry is, how to respond? Does the industry try to find new ways to deliver that information? Or does it abandon them and try to find new makers of community relevance?

Heavy stuff. The kind that needs to be debated over a Tito Burger and a series of Blue Lights at some point in the not-to-distant future.
Sep. 26th, 2010 02:25 am (UTC)
I think that with a couple of Titoburgers in our bellies and a few cold beers handy, we pretty much could solve the problems of the whole industry.
Sep. 25th, 2010 12:24 am (UTC)
Shhh... listen! What was that? Was that the sound of a plan, hatching?
Sep. 25th, 2010 12:37 am (UTC)
You bet.
Sep. 25th, 2010 12:33 am (UTC)
I was always taught that a proper person was mentioned in the newspaper three times in his life. Birth, Marriage, and Death. I guess I'm not proper as I;ve been in the paper at least 30 times in my life. My most embarrassing moment for my family was when Chernobyl blew up. I was trading wheat at the exchange at the time and made a high 8 figures in about 15 minutes. Anyways, Peter Jennings was in town and came down to do some interviews at the exchange. Since I had a good day, I went upstairs and did about a gram of coke (Tony Montana) style. I had white powder all over my face and Jennings decided to interview me. I was out of control, but still maintained, and still have a copy of the interview on VHS, Anyways, my dad called me from Florida that night screaming as he knew exactly what I was up to and how much coke I did. Still, it was one of the finest days of my life.
Sep. 25th, 2010 12:38 am (UTC)
Jeff, it's my hope that someday I can sit across a table from you at some seaside bar, a bottle of Bombay in the middle, and listen to the stories of your life.
Sep. 25th, 2010 01:13 am (UTC)
Pat, actually the Bombay is flowing quite freely right now. I haven't mentioned it as of late, but I have a new lady friend. She's an accomplished author (been on Oprah's book club two or three times), 9 best sellers, not crazy, my age, beautiful, and diametrically opposite to every belief that I hold dear. Needless to say, we find each others company very engaging. However, she lives in Manhattan and I divide my time between here and there. I;m spending much less time in NYC ever since I got a tax bill on money that I didn't even earn there and am fighting the tax mavens there. Anyways, that's another story. Someday, I'd love to sit down and knock off a bottle or 3 of Bombay and tell lots of lies:)
Sep. 25th, 2010 01:20 am (UTC)
Cheers! to you and your new friend.
Sep. 25th, 2010 01:31 am (UTC)
Actually, it;s your story i'd like to hear. If you are ever in the same latitude as me, we need to stay up all night sharing a bottle of Bombay and solving all the problems of the world.
Sep. 25th, 2010 12:50 am (UTC)
You already know how thoroughly I agree with you on the stuff in this post -- and I think the person setting up that news web site could find himself with all kinds of help. I also spotted the flowery obit -- I winced, but I'd rather have that than the type I pointed out to you from Neighboring Co-Owned Daily, where we had to call the funeral parlor to find out the calling hours. My suspicion is that calling hours would only be printed in a more expensive obit. My feeling is the same as yours: That's news.
Sep. 25th, 2010 01:15 am (UTC)
They didn't print the calling hours? Egads.
Sep. 25th, 2010 01:01 am (UTC)
Very interesting points. Lately, I've heard a lot of stories about how the paper used to be. In looking at a few old editions, it's very clear the paper is a shadow of its former self. It's a shame.
Sep. 25th, 2010 01:18 am (UTC)
I really hate to sound like one of those "back in my day" curmudgeons, but I think microfilmed editions from 20 years ago would speak for themselves. You would have fit right in, and you would have loved it.
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 25th, 2010 11:56 am (UTC)
The Rainbow Bridge refers to an essay that's popular among pet owners. It tells how deceased pets cross this bridge to get to heaven, where they'll be reunited with their human companions.
Sep. 25th, 2010 12:14 pm (UTC)
I don't think people are reluctant to pay the money, Rich. I think they don't pay for an obit because they can't afford it. It costs a lot to die.
Sep. 25th, 2010 05:54 am (UTC)
Sincen this is aboutn Obits, here;s the one of my late wife,

Carolnye Denise Warson died last night from complications of Ovarian Cancer, Denise was a world renowned artist with showings in galleries on four continents, she was surrounded with friend snd family, and her her passing was peaceful. Deinse didn't fight s vslisnt fight, nor did she exhibit coursgeous behavior. She merely said fairwell to friends and family, kissed us nall then died. Her wishes were to be interned in the fsmily plot and a massive party in her hon was held A scholarship was endoweded to provde full tuition and room and board for the "Ringling School of Art and design" So far, we have been aboe to give students a means ro get a worldclass education, Thia was all my late wife's wishes for her legacy and we plan on endowing a full professorship in the next year or two.

Thisn Obitn was combined with some things aaaaaaaaaai needed to say. Plus,too much Bombay
Sep. 25th, 2010 12:00 pm (UTC)
Jeff, that is a fine tribute to Denise.
Sep. 25th, 2010 05:57 am (UTC)
I still hurt a lot and wouddn't wish this on amyone,even my worst enemy.
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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