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Three common questions about obits

Obituaries have high readership in most newspapers, and The Union is no different … except that we recognize that, and list on Page One the people whose obits are in the paper that day and tell you where to find them.

That is, we list the free obituaries, which the newsroom’s administrative assistant, Janet Lee, writes using a form filled out and sent to us by local funeral homes. Because of space concerns, the free obituaries are restricted in length and content, although we keep an eye out for candidates for what we call “feature obits,” or extended stories about people – not necessarily well-known – who led interesting lives.

The Union also offers paid obituaries, which are handled like advertisements through our ad department. Families can write as much as they want about the deceased and include photos if they wish.



Three common questions we receive from readers are:

1. “Why must you list dead people on Page One? I’ve never seen another newspaper do that. It’s gross.” The answer is that we approach obituaries as celebrations of life for people in our community – a community, I might note, that is demographically the oldest county in California. Many more readers thank us for listing “Lives Lived” on Page One than criticize us, so we will continue to do so.




2. “Why don’t you list paid obituaries as well as free obituaries on Page One?” This has to do with the traditional “wall” at newspapers between advertising and news. I’ll leave the long explanation of this ethical split for another time, but it effectively means that editors have nothing to do with ads, and ad sales people don’t get involved in stories – and both sides like it that way because it avoids a lot of potential conflict.

However, some families prefer to pay for an ad and skip the free obit. Since our goal is to serve the readers and tell them who has died in the community, there is merit to listing both on Page One. Problem is, people in the newsroom often do not know that a paid obit has been purchased; sometimes it may not even be placed on the designated obituary page.

However, we will work with the ad department to see if we can develop a communication system so we can also list paid obituaries on Page One.

3. “Why can’t I find paid obituaries online or in your Web archives?” The simple answer has to do with that same “wall.” Paid obituaries are ads in the print edition of The Union. They are in a format that, as of now, cannot be put online. A separate online obituary ad would have to be created for an additional price. Even so, an online obit could not be archived with news stories, since stories and ads are in different digital formats.

Confusing, I know. I have been forwarding the question about online paid obits to Advertising Director Bill Lavelle, since the solution would have to come from his department. (A possible solution, if a way were found to put paid obits online, may be to have two different archive searches – one for a free obit and one for a paid obit.)

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Speaking of our Web site: Pardon me for bragging a little, but in case you missed the news story on Monday, TheUnion.com was named the best site in the state in 2003 for newspapers from 10,000 to 25,000 circulation. That includes 21 papers.

The Union also took a first in the Better Newspapers Contest for “Front Page,” a second place for “Sports Story” by Sports Editor Brian Hamilton, and “Blue Ribbon Finalist” awards to Hamilton for “Writing” (competing against all papers under 75,000 circulation), reporter David Mirhadi for “Feature Story,” and overall “Page Layout and Design.”

While Webmaster Dayna Amboy and Design Editor Kim Midboe head the list of those who can take credit for our two first-place awards, what is particularly gratifying is these truly are group prizes. The quality of a Web site and front pages depend on dedication and skill by everyone – writers, photographers, editors, page designers and our news assistants who gather all the information that goes into a winning newspaper.

Success also fosters confidence that we can move the bar even higher for the 2004 contest.

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Reader Walt Fraser suggested that for those with friends or relatives serving in Iraq – or just for the curious – we should add Baghdad to the world temperatures on our weather page. We have done so, at least long as troops are over there. I notice that the forecasted high Friday was 109 …

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Richard Somerville is the editor of The Union. His column appears on Saturdays.


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