Obit Readership Is Increasing

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By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, August 2, 2009

Did you catch the news about the golfer who died of a stroke? How about the librarian who checked out? Or the math teacher whose number was up?

They've heard them all on newspaper obituary desks. Once known for bad puns and dull prose, those departments were testing grounds for novice reporters and graveyards for washed-up talent.

No more. Today, the craft of writing about death has taken on new life.

Obituaries, at one time seen as mostly a public service, are now viewed as driving audience growth -- and revenue.

At The Post, readership surveys show solid gains for obituaries in recent years.

On The Post's Web site, traffic for obituaries is increasing. Over the past six months, they have drawn nearly three times as many page views as the next most popular "subsection" in Metro, where they are located. Readers can also follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

And while reporters once viewed the obit desk as a form of newsroom purgatory, some at The Post now see working there as a plum assignment.

"History has not been so kind to the beat," said Adam Bernstein, The Post's 35-year-old obituaries editor. "But I really do regard it as one of the most important jobs on the paper."

"We're different from other parts of the paper in that we're often writing about stuff that was important 40, 50, 60 years ago," he said. "Our chief goal is trying to bring it alive in a compelling, fair and vivid way."

Bernstein and his small staff -- writers Patricia Sullivan, Matt Schudel, Joe Holley and editorial aide Lauren Wiseman -- crank out nearly 4,000 obituaries a year.

Many are about luminaries. But most are about ordinary locals of lesser note. Post policy is to write an obit about nearly anyone who resided here for at least 20 uninterrupted years and for more years than they lived elsewhere.

"I can't think of any other newspaper in the world that will write about nearly every single member of the community," Bernstein said.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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