RJI Fellow helps newsrooms rethink obituaries to memorialize those lost during COVID-19

The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute awarded seven fellowships for the 2020–21 academic year for projects that address the increasing challenges in covering climate change, unpublishing, harassment of marginalized journalists and more.

Poynter’s Kristen Hare is memorializing some of those who have passed away during COVID-19 with a feature obituary project. At the same time, she believes the RJI Fellowship project can help newsrooms build audiences and a renewed sense of community during a time of unrest and political polarization.

Hare said that obituaries have been a good source of income for newspapers for years, however, they haven’t changed much. According to AdPay, obituaries make up about $500 million in total annual revenue. Hare believes there is a good opportunity to rethink them in the digital age and help reconnect communities.

“I’ve been looking for years for a way to test this notion that people care about the lives of people that they don’t know, and to do it in a way that helps the newsroom itself bring in new revenue,” says Hare.

During the fellowship, Hare is working with the Tampa Bay Times in St. Petersburg, Florida, to write weekly feature obits about regular everyday people rather than local celebrities. She will then develop a weekly newsletter to feature at least one of the weekly obits and will monitor the project’s analytics for Poynter – where she reports on local news – to see how well it’s doing and share findings with other newsrooms.

Hare did a pre-run of the project with the Times last year for several months before putting the project on hold because of other work commitments. During this test period, she learned that there is an audience for revamped obits.  Hare has written obituaries for her job throughout her career and has seen a decline in the number of professionally written obits.

When she saw the RJI Fellowship, she saw it as a “jet fuel” opportunity to continue the project and further explore how to rethink obits in a way that builds audiences and reconnects news outlets with communities.

“I just think that death across cultures is a shared experience, even when we express grief differently,” she says. “I believe more strongly than ever, particularly with how polarized we are that reminding people of the people that are our neighbors and the lives that they lived is a way to reconnect.”

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