Reviving the Obituary
by Kristen Hare
July 20, 2021
This interview with Kristen Hare, a reporter with Poynter and the Tampa Bay Times, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Kristen | My background is in features writing. For the first 10 years of my career, I was at the St. Joseph Missouri News-Press, a daily newspaper, and the St. Louis Beacon, an online nonprofit, and I wrote obits regularly enough that I really grew to love and value the position and the work.
A few years back, there was a job opening at the Tampa Bay Times for an obit reporter. When I saw the position, I was like, “Oh, that's my dream job.” I applied for the role, but then they ended up killing the position. Then I applied for the same position at the Dallas Morning News. I had a few conversations with them and was getting ready to be brought in for an interview, but then they also killed the position.
As someone covering local news, I understood what was happening: these local newsrooms were having to make serious choices about what they could keep, and what they had to get rid of in order to survive. One of the casualties was obituaries. I also knew that one of the things that makes a newsroom successful is finding work that no one else is doing, and nobody else is doing obits on regular people. There's a whole huge market here that people are missing.
At some point I realized, wait, I work for a place that cares about the future of local news, that happens to own one of Florida's best newspapers. Maybe I could test this work myself and see if it works.
So I did it for a year on my own, with an editor whom I love and I've worked with before. It was challenging because I had all the demands of my existing job, so this was the thing that ended up getting pushed away the most. We decided to try it as a fellowship through Reynolds Journalism Institute. I had to write about it monthly for eight or nine months, which was a really good deadline to have because it forced me to think through some of the minutia that I hadn't had time to think through before — the ethics of paid obits, why paid obits are so white, and what newsrooms should be doing to counter that.
I was also just really hardcore collecting data along the way which allowed me to see if obits were leading people down the path to subscription, beyond just being well received. We found that they were leading to subscriptions.
I have always heard from other journalists when talking about obits, “Oh, that's how I learned to be a writer, it is such powerful storytelling.” That is great, but what matters more to me is hearing from people who say they are going to start doing this as well – and several newsrooms have reached out to me and want help in starting this back up again for themselves.
frank | How does the process work, start to finish?
I find people often through a paid obit, or somebody shares something on Facebook, or somebody writes in and says my wife died and she was a community environmental activist or something like that. My first step when making the pitch that I want to write about their family member is to explain to them that I'm writing an obituary, which is not something they're going to pay me for, but it is also not something they're going to see before it is published. I tell them that I'm going to do my best to represent their family member and make sure that they feel like they're in the passenger’s seat in the process. That really means that in addition to several interviews, I do a really thorough fact check with a family member before it is published.
There's all kinds of interesting things that have come up in this process. It stirs up messy stuff. That is something that I think I was prepared for, but that I am better prepared for now. It comes down to an understanding of the messiness of families and grief, and that grief enhances the messiness. And it's not my job to fix it — I'm really clear with people about that — but I don't want the obit to cause more harm. I'm not their PR person, but when you're talking about loss and especially recent loss, I think we have to have the empathy to be willing to navigate with people.
Sometimes people don't want to do it. I've done several interviews before with people on a loved one, and then got a call from a family member that said, “Nope, we don't want you to write about this person.” And they're not famous. Nobody knows who they are. They don't have a public life. I am not going to put that on somebody, just because I think that there are some interesting things about them.
I've also made choices about who I write about and who I don't, based on their background checks. I work with a researcher and she always calls it, “Florida Clean”, which is the basis I go off of. That means, you probably have some traffic stops, you may have gotten busted a couple of times for some recreational drugs, but you haven't hurt anybody and you didn't steal anything.
How long does it take to produce an obit?
Well, the hardest part isn’t finding someone, the hardest part is working backward. You find a person, and then you have to find people who knew them. If you are working from a tip, great, that tipster will direct you to other people to talk to. That is the easiest way.
But, if you are off of an obit or a link or a news story, then you're building backward. You look at the names in the “survived by” section. If they don’t have a digital profile or footprint, then we're going to do some search in records to see if we can find them there. Usually, if somebody is like 60 or younger, they're going to at least have a Facebook profile. And they usually say where they work and then I'll cold call where they work. That is a disturbing thing to have somebody do, but people are understanding.
Once that's started, it's just a matter of conducting three to four interviews. The reporting and the writing process is the easiest part, finding people and convincing them to talk to us is the most challenging part of it.
The data you collected as it pertains to local news survival was really interesting. Can you talk more about it? I’m also curious about what obituaries can mean to publications that are not geography-based.
When you test something, you have to really go into it with an open mind, which is a hard thing to do when you care about something and you want it to be successful. Having that approach meant figuring out that we were thinking like newspaper journalists, and that we needed to make some changes.
Originally we were publishing on Thursdays, but by Thursday most people have checked out. They might be googling what they're going to be doing for the weekend, but they're definitely not settling in to read an inspiring story.
We said to the digital team, what day do you think this would do best? They said Mondays. Mondays are light news days because people are coming back to their computers. So we started to put them up at 5:00 AM Monday morning and included them in our morning newsletter. We stopped putting people's names as headlines and we started focusing on things people would care about. We started playing with the levers and pushing the buttons: better headline, better photos, different day.
Once we started paying attention to those analytics then we started really quickly seeing how obituaries can tug on universal threads. For example, we saw how well the story about the drag queen in Orlando was doing. It wasn't because it was about Orlando, it was because people who care about drag wherever they lived, cared about that story. The same thing is true with the piece on this history teacher we recently ran. People who went to this high school and knew this teacher or live in this community might care about the story, but more broadly, everybody had that one teacher who changed their life — he was that teacher.
So I think tugging on those universal threads is the way that any site or newsroom or a project can do this kind of work. It is really about, what are the stories that we can tell best?
Do you feel like it says something about what people want from local newsrooms more broadly?
I think this work can be done by anybody. I think it can be done by public radio. I think that it would be fantastic on video.
Journalists and newsrooms have to realize that while we have been shrinking, our communities have not, and the needs of the community have not been shrinking. There are audiences for the kind of work that no one else is doing.
For me, the unmeasurable part of the obits has been realizing that though there are platforms that do a really good job of making us feel divided, when it comes down to the places we live in, there are more things we have in common than there are things that separate us. Whatever your political beliefs are, whatever your religious beliefs are, understanding how someone lives and how it may connect to you is part of being in a community.
I have had experience in other cultures with obituaries. I was in the Peace Corps after college and lived in Guyana, in South America. We would sit in the evenings, and between clips of Friends, which they pirated in, they would basically play toilet paper commercials and then death notices. They would run the sad music with a person's photo and then their obituary on the television. My neighbors and community members, and later on my family, because my husband is from Guyana, would all sit and watch the death notices. That's how you understand what's happening in your community. My sister lived in Italy, and the village that she lived in would nail a list of deaths to a fountain. There's something universal about this that transcends cultures. It is both super-specific and it's super universal at the same time.
Well thank you for the time, the research really jumped out to me.
I mean, it did really resonate, which was exciting to see. It's very replicable.