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It's no secret that online sites have taken a huge bite out of the advertising revenue once lavished on newspapers. But what many consumers don't realize is that they are being asked to dig deeper to pay for obituaries and other services that newspapers once provided for a nominal fee, or even for free.

Families dealing with the death of a loved one are often shocked to learn that a simple obituary appearing for just one day in their local daily can cost $600 or more -- much more if it includes a photo and runs for more than one day. While exact figures are hard to come by, it's estimated that the obituary business currently exceeds $500 million annually for newspapers and their partners, like AdPay, an Ancestry company, and Legacy.com.

AdPay's website is brimming over with testimonials from newspapers thrilled with the additional revenue they derive from their deceased subscribers' families.

"We have seen a 23% increase in revenue in our obituary category…it has been a great success locally, and we see the network component as an important strategy," said Geordie Wilson, publisher of the Frederick News-Post in Frederick, Maryland.

Families not enthused

While publishers may be exultant, the joy does not extend to bereaved families.

“I guess I’m not surprised the Wichita Eagle spelled Steve’s last name wrong, even though it is correct in the submitted obit,” a Kansas woman fumed in a recent Facebook posting. “The cost to put it in the paper is over $600 WITHOUT A PICTURE.”

She’s not alone. Family members are frequently blindsided by the treatment they get from newspapers that they have supported for decades.

“When my mother died, the Belleville News-Democrat soaked me several hundred dollars and never did manage to get the obit into the printed paper,” an Illinois man said in a recent ObitCenter report that, in turn, touched off a new series of Facebook postings, including these:

Photo“I thought it would be $30 or maybe $40 but it was hundreds,” the Illinois consumer said of his experience. “My mother subscribed to that paper for 70 years. The least they could do is run a few lines when she died.”

Perhaps, but as newspapers have lost advertisers, they have increasingly looked to their dwindling subscriber base to make up at least some of the deficit. Subscription prices have risen, often drastically, and many papers now charge for wedding announcements, calendar listings, and other community information that was once considered to be part of the news product.

Know your obit options

Critics have long contended that newspapers have only themselves to blame for losing out to Google, Facebook, and other online giants. When they were enjoying monopoly-style revenue streams, the argument goes, newspapers should have developed the search engines, discussion forums, and other features that have drawn eyeballs away from the printed page. But since they didn't, they are now turning to companies like AdPay and Legacy.com, which work with funeral directors and newspapers to put together boilerplate obituaries and split the revenue.

As consumers become aware of this, a growing number are using sites like ObitCenter, which runs free obituaries. Others are simply placing obits on Facebook and other social media platforms. This can be tricky, however, as a Kentucky man found out recently when a family member died.

He had previously submitted an obit to an online site but was surprised to learn that, without asking, the funeral director had already submitted an obituary to Legacy.com and the local newspaper while, presumably, building the charge into its bill for funeral services. The publisher of a local news site in Virginia said that funeral directors sometimes inquired about placing obituaries on his site but lost interest when told that the site did not charge a fee.

Federal law requires that funeral directors provide an itemized list of available services and allow consumers to choose only the ones they want, but many families don't know about this and don't insist on reviewing the list before finalizing their arrangements.

Besides the financial pain, high obituary prices exact a social cost as well, as a recent Axios story noted. The high prices make it “easier for the rich to be remembered” while delivering one last bit of social inequity for those unable to afford a printed memorial, it said.

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