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Obits Online

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It's no secret that newspapers are going through tough times. But it's not a great sign when they're investing in a company that could help write their own obituaries.

The owner of the Wall Street Journal is among investors funding a $4million plus startup based in Charlestown. Tributes.com wants to take death notices — one of the last strongholds of newspaper revenue — online.

WBUR's Curt Nickisch reports.

TEXT OF STORY

CURT NICKISCH: In a photo on a web site, Ruth Fallon is standing on the porch of the Arlington home, where she lived for most of her eighty-five years. Her face is turned to the sun.

JILL FALLON: Well, it's not one of her real smiles, but I just like it because she was a lovely woman! She was a beautiful woman.

NICKISCH: Jill Fallon is her daughter. She published this photo online, along with the eulogy she gave, after Ruth died last year. Jill wanted anyone who missed the funeral to be able to celebrate her mother's life.

FALLON: Two months later a year later two years later, you'll never know when someone's gonna run across it, and that's a wonderful thing!

NICKISCH: Lasting online memorials like these are growing more popular. Some people publish their own. Others go to a handful a web site, a few are run by newspapers. Jeff Taylor thinks this fragmented market is a huge business opportunity. He should know. The Needham High School grad started Monster.com, which put the Help Wanted classifieds online and took a monster bite out of newspaper income. In June, he'll launch Tributes.com to try to do the same for death notices.

JEFF TAYLOR: It's a well-read section. It's sometimes called the Irish sports pages or, somebody said: it's the way I keep score!

NICKISCH: Taylor wants to score some of what he thinks is a billion dollar business nationwide. Tributes would charge for posting memorials and for advertising. But Taylor says the extra service is worth it. For instance you'll be able to sign up to get e-mails anytime someone from your hometown dies. When they do, you'll be able to post photos and comments. Taylor says adds much more value over the short newspaper blurb about where to send flowers.

TAYLOR: Maybe a name and dates, maybe an old black-and-white photo. Very tough to draw your power as a person from such skinny details.

NICKISCH: For now, newspapers make a fat profit from those skinny details.

LOU URENECK: A very small ad costs a lot of money.

NICKISCH: Lou Ureneck is a former newspaper editor who now teaches at Boston University. He says most dailies consider obituaries journalism and print them free of charge. But not everyone gets an obit.

URENECK: And the only way for some families to get the names of their loved ones into the newspaper is to buy to the death notice.

NICKISCH: Phone in one to the Boston Globe, and it'll cost you eight dollars per line and seventy-five dollars per photo... per day. Even so, funeral directors say there's a reason newspapers have a stranglehold on the business.

SOUND OF GRANDFATHER CLOCK CHIMES

NICKISCH: At his funeral parlor in Arlington, David Walkinshaw says the fact is, when people want to know for whom the bell tolls, they read the paper. Just look at the customer.

DAVID WALKINSHAW: Sixty-five or seventy and traditionally they've done things a particular way. And when I put a newspaper notice in the Boston Globe, that's where people go to know that the visiting hours are at a particular point and time.

NICKISCH: But Tributes CEO Jeff Taylor is banking on the growing number of older people, including aging baby boomers, who use the net. He's hoping by the time he dies, Tributes-dot-com will have beat out newspaper web sites and competitors to become the clearinghouse for online death notices.

TAYLOR: My favorite song is Michael Jackson 'Wanna be Startin' Something', and my favorite food is lasagna and garlic bread. There would be some sort of montage...

He's already planning his own online memorial.

For WBUR, I'm Curt Nickisch.

This program aired on April 8, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Curt Nickisch Twitter Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.

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