Thursday, October 06, 2005

The flow of online tributaries

As an addendum to that Poynter piece, of course he's far from the first person to use Blogger to write an obit, and also not the first to use the rather wonderful photo service Flickr in this way either; I happen to know one of the founders of Flickr, who told me that within a few days of its launch, people were creating albums of this kind, and it made all of them at Flickr HQ both proud and sad at the same time.

The writer of the piece suggests that online death notices should be the domain of newspapers. I say, perhaps. Although the creation of a web tribute service could be a way of earning money for a newspaper, I personally doubt that it would be very lucrative. Unless you're prepared to invest in creating something truly remarkable (and for local newspapers, it's just not worth the cost and effort - and many should be spending that money first on the rest of their website), the truth is that, although some newspapers have a close relationship with readers when it comes to death notices in print, I would question how many people would read these notices online.

Perhaps, as the writer suggests, newspapers will have to choose between one-line notices followed by a web address, and the current model. But few people will remember to take their newspaper and place it next to their computer, unless it's to read a notice about someone they knew. There are many reasons why readers like browsing death notices. To see if they knew anyone; to read mini stories and tributes; to note any eccentricities; to feel, as Saroyan was quoted in my previous posting, alive.

People also read them because they arrive alongside the rest of the newspaper. They don't buy the paper specifically to see who's died; they probably won't go to the website for that either. It's in the package, so they read it. One line plus web address would most likely remove the pleasure that notices can bring to the casual reader. So, for most readers, I suggest the current model works fine. But once again, it's a question of balancing your duties to bereaved families, and to your readership as a whole. The one-line-plus-web-address solution clearly benefits the families, to the detriment of the rest of the audience.

Away from newspapers, to create your own online notices, as the writer realised, is easier than you might think. Web tools such as Blogger and Flickr are deliberately built for people to adapt to their own uses - which are inevitably be more varied and more imaginative than anything the companies themselves could come up with. They know that, and so build flexibility of purpose into the feature set.

For those less tech-minded, a number of online services already exist, from the free to the very cheap, that seem to do a pretty good job of the web death notice. Beyond that which offers, the marketplace is already crowded with sites such as Simply Divine Memories, My Memorials, Angels Online and so forth.

And of course, many people know enough about computers now to create some kind of own online memorial page themselves. These pages may not be slick, well-designed or professionally written... but, as those who work with paid notices will know, when it comes to personal tributes, that's often the point.

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