How to Get a Newspaper to Run an Obituary for Free
In the 1990s, more newspapers, particularly big-city ones, started charging to run obituaries or death notices that weren't written by the editorial staff. The tide turned around the same time as profit-driven interests began cutting back on or charging for other reader-generated features such as engagement and 50th anniversary photos. No longer is it come one, come all. When you die, you might get a one-liner in the paper courtesy of information passed along from the funeral home, but if you or your survivors want more than that, expect to break out the pocketbook or pitch the passing as a news story.
Readers and many editors revolted at paid obits at first, and then seemingly accepted the trend, which in a way gentrified newspaper obits beyond what had previously been the case. If you have money, you get a write-up, either through editorial influence on the obit page or through a check written for a paid death notice.
However, with some inside knowledge on how newspaper editors and reporters think and how deadlines work, you can have a good shot at getting a journalist to cover the death of your friend or family member from a news standpoint.
The key is having a good amount of biographical information already compiled, and contacting an editor or reporter directly. Your approach will differ depending on the size and circulation of the paper you're contacting.
Many newspapers, especially smaller ones with limited circulation, don't run obits as a matter of course. Only if someone was politically prominent, died in a public manner, or was otherwise publicly noteworthy will some publications assign a writer to do an obit or cover the funeral. But there is a lot of room for exceptions. If you're hoping to get a newspaper to run an article about your loved one, try to think objectively and "pitch" the reporter or editor based on newsworthiness. Despite the emotion and pride you must be feeling, open the conversation by explaining why the public at large would be interested in reading about your loved one: Was she a small player in a historical event? Did he invent, write or create something that was widely distributed? And so on.
When pitching a big-city newspaper, the standards of "importance" are even higher. Many people die every day, and reporters and editors can choose only a handful to highlight. Again, that's not because they don't care. Sometimes, it's as simple as a staffing issue. Some big-city papers employ full-time obituary writers, acknowledging that obits are one of the most-read sections of the paper and, after all, it's a public service. Ironically, you might also have a good shot if your loved one never rose to public notoriety at all (read on):
There's another reason a journalist may be interested in writing an obituary about someone who's not well-known in the community: the trend toward "average Joe" or "egalitarian" obits. These post-death profiles of everyday people add color to newspapers because the people in them are so relatable to the reader.
It's also especially helpful to have put together some facts, including historical dates and places, about your loved one to give to the reporter, along with a photo that you don't ask to have returned to you. (Many reporters will return the photo, especially if you include a self-addressed envelope, but honestly it's a hassle and it's so easy for consumers to get extra copies of photos nowadays.)
What is the downside to having a journalist writing about you or your loved one? Basically, loss of control. Sure, your loved one cared for stray animals, doted on his grandchildren and volunteered on nonprofit boards. But he did lead that savings-and-loan that went belly-up in the '80s, and what about that secret second wife he had overseas? If it was newsworthy at the time, don't expect a reporter to leave it out now just because their subject is no longer among the living. Journalists respect people, but they're not big fans of revisionist history. If the writer has a history of balanced, well-written stories, expect your loved one to be treated with similar fairness and professionalism.
And here's a final tip: Former Boston Globe columnist Martin Nolan once half-joked, "Die on a slow news day and you'll be well taken care of."
Index of obituary templates