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Journal turns to obituaries for revenue

When the much-respected anti-poverty activist Nancy Gewirtz recently died after a long fight with cancer, the Providence Journal noted the passing with a finely etched front-page story by Scott MacKay that captured much of her spirit. In about a month, however, the deaths of less newsworthy Rhode Islanders will go unnoted in the stateís paper of record unless someone is ready to foot the bill for a paid obituary.

By planning to institute this change as of January 1, the ProJo follows the lead of a growing number of metro dailies that, knowing how death is one of lifeís few certainties, see paid obits as a reliable source of revenue. The pending switch in responsibility for overseeing obits from the news to advertising side, however, has left some reporters troubled about losing a rich source of information. "Obits are news," says one scribe. "You canít make a journalistic justification for [switching oversight from news to advertising.] Itís just about the money."

Adds Tim Schick, administrator of the Providence Newspaper Guild, "From a journalistic standpoint, thereís a cause for concern, because, historically, obituaries have been a newspaper story subject to the editorial control and standards of the news department. By switching it to an advertising vehicle, the purchaser then becomes in control of it. In essence, they can put it in whatever they want, subject to the much looser standards of a newspaperís advertising policy. If someone wants to put in that their 865-pound grandmother was a five-time Olympic weightlifting champion, thereís nothing to stop them. Or if they want to put in something frivolous, like her favorite color was pink."

Sources indicate that newsroom managers objected to the policy change to paid obits, which will result in the creation of a handful of new positions in pre-publishing and inside telephone sales. As Schick says, "This is not a worker vs. management issue. This is a newsroom vs. advertising issue." The Guild administrator believes the change could benefit small dailies that do not charge for their obits. Executive editor Joel P. Rawson did not return a call seeking comment

The move to paid obits, although certainly undesirable from the perspective of the newsroom, pales in comparison to the situation at the Dallas Morning News, also owned by the Dallas-based Belo Corporation, where about 150 workers were laid off earlier this month. The cuts came after a scandal prompting plans to repay more than $20 million to advertisers because of inflated circulation figures at the Dallas paper.

Things seem on a far more even keel in Providence, where Rawson recently received a Yankee Quill Award from the New England Society of Newspaper Editors, for his support for investigative reporting and the publicís right to know. Meanwhile, a terrific two-part series by Mike Stanton, which revealed previously undisclosed business ties between former House Majority Leader Gerard M. Martineau and CVS and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island while Martineau was in a position to influence legislation that could impact the two entities, reflects the continued vigor of the ProJoís investigative coverage.

Still, despite the absence of any talk about layoffs at the Journal, itís an indication of the paperís diminished resources that Providence-based reporters were sent to suburban bureaus to write stories on Election Day ó the first time this has happened in recent memory. Schick says that a hiring freeze imposed after the news broke of the Dallas circulation scandal may be lifted in January, paving the way for a handful of hires, predominantly two-year reporter-interns.

Issue Date: November 26 - December 2, 2004
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