By making obituaries free to publish, these Ohio news outlets hope to play the long game
Obituaries have long been a reliable revenue stream for newspapers both in print and online. But at the news site Richland Source in Ohio, senior ad and marketing manager David Yoder and director of client coaching and strategy Audrey Longstreth wanted to fix the publication’s obituary section.
Richland Source had been charging $50 per obituary, which is relatively low (costs at larger papers rise into the hundreds of dollars). The obituaries section was one of the most-visited parts of the website, and, in 2021, it brought in over $12,000. But platform director Zac Hiser didn’t want to charge more. He had heard from readers that payment was a hurdle. And so instead of optimizing for revenue, Hiser, Yoder, and Longstreth — who all grew up and went to high school in the area — decided to make obituaries free to publish.
“Effective Aug. 1, funeral homes and readers alike will be able to directly publish an obituary to Richland Source, Ashland Source, and Knox Pages for free using a short web form,” Source told readers in an announcement in July. “Changes in the local media landscape in recent years have resulted in a clear message from local readers: They want a convenient and inviting space where they can find all the recent obituaries.”
Source Media includes the Richland Source, Ashland Source, and Knox Pages, which cover their respective counties in northern central Ohio. They all receive funding through a mixture of individual and corporate memberships, advertising, in-house marketing, and grants. (The Richland Source also developed LedeAI, a system to automate high school sports stories.)
The reaction to making obituaries free was immediate and positive, Yoder said. The post on Facebook, for example, had 178 reactions and 25 shares (Richland Source’s Facebook page has a total of 34,000 likes). Yoder believes that in rural communities like Richland County — where 20% of the population is 65 or older — people want to know what’s going on in other people’s lives and to be able to support each other.
“The payoff of this work is when we do it right,” Yoder said. “When somebody writes a thoughtful obituary, it’s a reminder that our publication is a platform for people to grieve in a healthy way, and to say something meaningful to the larger community about somebody they love very much.”
On the website, one reader wrote:
“Thank you!! This is so much more than a small gesture. This says that your readers and the communities in which you serve, DO matter to you. When grieving the loss of a loved one, the last thing someone wants to do is worry about the cost of a public announcement. Unfortunately, I have first hand experience and we chose not to spend thousands of dollars to publish in the news sources in the larger cities, where he once lived. I felt bad that we couldn’t possibly reach more people, but we could not justify the expense for just a picture and one sentence. So, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you for making life a little easier, for those going through a very difficult time.”
Yoder said Richland Source published 38 obituaries. That number jumped to 105 in August when publishing them became free. Knox Pages, which is for a smaller county and is a newer publication, published eight obituaries in July and 22 in August. Ashland Source published five in July and three in August.
Because the new obituaries system now publishes automatically, the staffer who previously worked on obits daily can now check in and make updates or corrections as needed and move on to other tasks. So far, no major issues have come up. (“The risk of auto-publish is something we’re willing to live with,” Yoder said.
There was also a 40% increase in pageviews of the obituaries pages across the three properties, Yoder said, boosting overall traffic while freeing up an employee’s schedule.
It’s too soon to say, though, whether free obituaries and the resulting traffic have led to an uptick in memberships on the site. The three publications have a total of 1,185 paying members. Around 45% of those pay $70 a year, the lowest tier (the highest is $1,000 per year).
Yoder said the sites plan to add include direct membership asks in the obituaries sections to encourage people to support the publications. For now, though, he’s glad to see that people have responded to the change.
“Paying to place obituaries is a proven revenue model,” Yoder said. “We gave up very real dollars…The faucet turned off and the revenue ceased from that particular line. But 30 days later, when we see 40% growth [in obituary pageviews], we believe our hunch is proving correct.”
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