Editor’s Notebook: John Watson’s passing sparks debate over “free” obituaries

Some of you may be surprised to learn that longtime WILM radio host John Watson passed away June 22 at the age of 85. John hosted “News Talk on WILM” mornings from 1985 to 2012, but many of you already knew that. What you may NOT know is that he was a student in Farmville, Virginia, in 1954 and was a plaintiff in the renowned Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka case that ended “separate but equal” segregation. 

A more extended version of his obituary — which ran not in The News Journal but on the Congo Funeral Home website and elsewhere online — said that Watson participated in the dedication of the Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond Virginia, in 2008, and was well known for his community service and outspoken commitment to civil rights and human rights. He was active in many organizations such as the NAACP, The American Legion, Kiwanis Club, CHILD Inc., The Afro-American Historical Society, and helped in many fundraising events for families in need.

His longtime friend Harmon Carey wants people to know more about Mr. Watson. Carey, a civil rights activist as far back as anyone can remember, is frankly angry that The News Journal did not recognize John Watson’s accomplishments in an article (but we’ll get to that in just a minute). 

Carey wants to remind Delawareans that Watson “set the standard for talk show hosts in Delaware and beyond. He was the source of news and information in this community. He opened his microphone to guests with popular as well as controversial views and opinions and was targeted for criticism from both the left for being too conservative and from the right for being too liberal.”

(That’s kind of a neat trick at a time when most pundits in Delaware and elsewhere are firmly entrenched at one end of the spectrum or the other.)

But Carey continues: “Impeccable in his dress, unassailable in character and stalwart in his advocacy for civil rights and social justice, John’s life and career merit the appreciation of the community.”

So what has Harmon Carey so fired up? The fact that The News Journal didn’t memorialize Watson’s death and as a side frustration, the fact that Delaware’s only statewide daily newspaper charges for extended obituaries. 

The quotes above came from a letter to the editor he wrote (and that The News Journal published) wondering why John Watson didn’t deserve more than he got from the paper and urging them to reconsider their policy of charging for obituaries. 

That policy has been in place since the mid-1990s, and local funeral directors say the price seems to be constantly increasing. Kim Congo from the Congo Funeral Home, which handled John Watson’s arrangements, says it all started with the paper beginning to limit what was available at no cost.

“I would think obituaries are a selling point for older residents who have subscribed for a long time,” says Congo. “But it’s turned into a service to the community that many families can no longer afford. Just publishing basic information can still cost a couple hundred dollars.”

A call to Legacy.com, an affiliated third party that The News Journal and many other papers contract with to handle obituaries, found that the local paper charges $30 just to place the obit; $50 for a photo, and $6.00 per line (with the average being five words per line). The phone representative said there is a discount for running obituaries on Days 2 and 3, but you start over on Day 4.

That means a 250-word obituary can cost a family upwards of $400 for just one day. 

Is the obituary operation run locally? The phone rep said yes, but the emails for local reporters go to [email protected], while obits go to [email protected] Gannett and News Journal representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Congo took an approach that an increasing number of funeral homes are taking: It published John Watson’s full obituary on its own site. If you want a free obit in The News Journal, all you get is full name, age, city of residence, and funeral home.  Funeral home directors say the digital versions of obituaries offer an opportunity to be more interactive, providing a space to leave guestbook messages, a link to share with friends, and directions to the service.

But I wonder if that is enough for publications that want their readers to see them as the community’s paper and the local newspaper of record? Do they really want to point their older (presumably print subscribers) toward a digital version, and what impact does that have on loyalty? And do lower-income readers talk among themselves about the unfairness of the current strategy?

The News Journal has admittedly lost more than 60% of its print readership since the early 1990s and won’t disclose the degree to which they’ve replaced those with digital subscriptions. 

As The News Journal looks ahead to new ownership that may well make deeper staffing cuts, it’s going to have to discuss its role in the community. I can remember a time when new reporters got their start writing “advance” obits for aging members of the community so they’d be ready to go at the appropriate time (even if the person died late at night or over the weekend) and easily updated before running for free in the paper.

Those days appear long gone. I’d be interested in your thoughts as to whether a change in the business model might help the paper recapture the affection of a community that it has lost along with some terrific reporters over the years. Drop me a note at [email protected] if you have an opinion. 

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