by Roger Pynn
I heard from a lot of folks about a post I wrote August 15 – friends emailed and commented on social media such as Facebook with emotions ranging from sad to furious when the Orlando Sentinel stopped treating local deaths as news.
“Makes an increasingly non-relevant medium even more non-relevant…” said one-time broadcast exec Rich Bradley.
“A setback for future genealogists as well, as newspaper notices have traditionally been a go-to source for finding ancestors. Clearly a case of creating enormous ill will to gain a few hundred dollars a day. A sad commentary,” added my publisher friend Randy Noles.
And the son of two journalists I worked with and revered, Mike Bobroff eloquently offered, “Very unfortunate move by the Sentinel … passes all understanding.”
One of those who commented was the guy I call “big brother,” who retired some years ago from the Sentinel after serving last as the readers’ ombudsman. He shared a column he had written on the same subject more than a decade ago responding to reader anger when the newspaper changed the way it reported deaths of area residents. It was reducing some of the space it had long devoted to the subject … but it wasn’t doing away with it altogether as happened Aug. 7, 2013.
On March 31, 2002, Sentinel Public Editor Manning Pynn wrote:
“Starting Tuesday, the Sentinel will start publishing only basic information – name, age, city of residence, date of death and funeral home – about the death of anyone in Central Florida, as well as Central Floridians and their families elsewhere.
“That’s news. We don’t charge for that, and we never have – although some funeral homes, upon whom we rely for obituary information, have been charging their clients to pass that along.”
My, how times change. In what appeared to be the pursuit of a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of ad revenue a day, the Sentinel seemed to have decided death is not news anymore. One Sentinel person I spoke with had suggested that it was leveling the playing field for “the haves and have nots” by giving equal treatment to all. But that proved not to be the case. We learned that now all deaths are being treated by the paper as a commercial event … an opportunity to sell another ad.
Back then, Public Editor Pynn wrote:
“Change – whether a new obituaries policy or the placement of a favorite feature – can be jarring at first. I’d suggest that you give it some time, see how you like it and then let us know what you think.”
Something tells me people were doing just that. On Friday, August 23, “Deaths in Central Florida” reappeared. I’ll bet the good folks at the Sentinel got an earful.
But you have to wonder whether the death of a Winter Park World War II veteran and online comments about the cost of paid obituaries added to the din. When William G. Wood passed away, a line in his obit reportedly said “If you want to know more about my WWII father, email me @email@example.com because he would have rolled over in his grave over the exorbitant price of this obituary.”
Interestingly, that statement seems either to have disappeared … or been removed … but not before another onslaught of comments, including a mention in Jim Romenesko’s widely read and respected blog about the media.
Whatever the motivation, kudos to Sentinel management for eventually making a good decision. They’ve kept alive for all of us (haves and have nots alike) the hope that at least once in our life we’ll make news.