When Princess Diana died, former head of obituaries at the BBC, Bob Chaundy, was in his words, euphoric. Writing in The Independent in 2013, Chaundy said he had updated Diana’s obituary only six weeks earlier. He said only after the adrenaline has subsided does one regain the perspective and reflect on the death.
In a world where we use euphemisms to sanitise the ills of the dead, the custom of writing obituaries of the pre-dead is awkward. Chaundy said he was once introduced to Tony Blair with the words, “Tony, this is Bob Chaundy. He has written your obituary,” to which Blair looked understandably uncomfortable and replied: “I’d rather not have known that.”
Why then would the media prepare obituaries in advance if it makes people uncomfortable? Because it is part of strategic content planning. Pope John Paul II famously outlived some of his obituary writers. Stories of how his obituaries were written, rewritten, and updated over the years were as thrilling as the tributes.
Big news organisations have several obituaries of personalities of public interest ready. It pays in the end. All the research, writing, fact-checking, editing, layout would have been done; interesting videos and sound bites, set. All the editor would have to do when the time comes is to insert the five Ws and the H.
This is even more relevant today where prevalent fake news has eroded public trust in the media. News consumers are hungry for credible and relevant content. This is what audiences will be willing to pay for.
This, however, requires deliberate investment in journalism, more so in an era of digital disruption where newsrooms are grappling with dwindling newspaper sales, declining advertising revenue and pressing need to monetise digital platforms.
In the past week, I’ve participated in conversations where newsroom leaders discussed the existential challenge of media sustainability and managing newsrooms during the Covid-19 pandemic. The experiences are related: Sliding print circulation, sharp growth in online audiences, but minimal digital advertising revenue.
Most of the discussions are focused on how to turn growing online audiences into revenue sources at a time when financial constraints are affecting the quality and viability of journalism. The Covid-19 lockdowns have similarly forced many newsrooms to cut costs.
There is vast data which newsrooms can use to put together business models that work for them, including innovative distribution channels for those that still do print. The need for new revenue models also requires new ways of doing journalism.
At the time what was referred to as “online first” was introduced by many newsrooms, due attention was probably not given to innovations and investments that would expand revenue channels. The emphasis was mainly on “breaking the news first”. The effect on circulation was brutal.
The debate has now justifiably shifted to plans to sustain newsrooms by exploring more profit models. These concerns are indicative of a worldwide phenomenon and options for survival and growth such as audience engagement, innovations, paywalls, etc., have become almost predictable.
Many media companies are now experimenting with paywalls and digital subscriptions to counter shortfalls in print circulation. The question is, what are audiences paying for? People are not going to pay for content that is all over social media, but they will definitely subscribe for premium content and gravitate to platforms that invest in the journalism that produces quality stories.
This is precisely why some newsrooms employ premium content producers like obituarists who will spend years following their subjects’ every step. It is a worthwhile undertaking that requires long-term investment by media owners.
Ms Vuchiri is a journalist