Why Even Obituaries Are Dying

Opinion: Newspapers can't even hang on to one of their few remaining strengths.

ByABC News
September 11, 2008, 4:36 PM

Dec. 11, 2009 -- What Americans need right now is a good government-subsidized obituary.

You probably didn't read the story -- because what red-blooded American reads a newspaper anymore? But, apparently, the nation's newspapers, having already lost their editorial dominance to cable news and the Web, their sports coverage to fan sites, their classifieds to Craigslist and their editorial pages to the blogosphere, are now under heavy assault on their last profitable redoubt: the obituary page.

The story, from The Associated Press, reports that a new study by Northwestern University finds that social networks and online memorials are increasingly taking the place of that old print standby. This, of course, is shocking news: Given the average age of today's typical newspaper reader, the obituary page is likely the first and only one they read over their bowls of stewed prunes.

Thus, and for good reason, the Northwestern researchers recommend that newspapers not cut back on either those pages or the staffers who produce them. To that strategy, one can only say: fat chance.

I'm not trying to be cynical about all of this. I am, after all, a fourth-generation newspaperman, with my oldest, Tad, now a fifth. But in the past decade, the newspaper industry has made so many dumb strategic decisions, so obstinately refused to accept reality, and so arrogantly ignored advice from others who have survived similar technological revolutions, that there is a certain rough justice to what is happening to it right now.

That said, I don't wish this ugly fate on newspapers. Nor do I think most people. No, it's actually much worse than that. I find I don't really care that much anymore. I think there is a kind of Kubler-Ross mourning cycle for obsolete technologies as well.

First, we decry the loss of something that was so integral to our lives. Then, we sense that it is becoming something of a personal and social burden. Then, at last, we make the break and move on to the new technology. But we still retain a residual affection to what was so important to us.

Finally, we grow tired of hearing about the troubles of that old technology, blame it for creating its own problems and wish it would go away.

That's how I feel about desktop computers, impact printers, fax machines, analog television, CDs, carburetors ... and, increasingly, newspapers. I do feel a bit guilty about this attitude, like I'm betraying both my ancestors and those thousand or so yellowing clips with my byline on them moldering away in a closet. But, frankly, I'm too busy to even feel much of that.

Of course, there are some folks who are deeply concerned about the fate of newspapers: incumbent politicians. Most of them still see newspapers as a crucial source of news coverage of all of their fine work and as a source of endorsements they can put on their campaign fliers.

And, of course, most major dailies are also unionized and thus more than deserving of a bailout. (Other than banks, do the Feds ever bail out industries that are non-union or not obsolete?) Hence the calls for a bailout of the nation's newspapers, essentially giving the government oversight to assure newspapers retain their financial and editorial independence.