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Some Good News on Newspapers

Summary:
I like newspapers. I grew up reading the Winnipeg Free Press regularly, from about age 11 on. From 1984, when my wife and I moved to the Monterey Peninsula, until about 3 years ago, I subscribed to the Monterey Herald. But I noticed that the newspaper was slimming down to almost nothing and the price, inflation-adjusted, was becoming quite steep. So I quit subscribing. The reasons newspapers are dying are obvious. One of the main ways they made money was with classified ads. But with Craigslist providing classified ads and charging zero except for job listings in a few major cities and apartment rentals in New York, newspapers have lost a huge revenue stream. But I discovered some good news. They, at least the Winnipeg Free Press and the Toronto Star, charge a

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I like newspapers. I grew up reading the Winnipeg Free Press regularly, from about age 11 on. From 1984, when my wife and I moved to the Monterey Peninsula, until about 3 years ago, I subscribed to the Monterey Herald. But I noticed that the newspaper was slimming down to almost nothing and the price, inflation-adjusted, was becoming quite steep. So I quit subscribing.

The reasons newspapers are dying are obvious. One of the main ways they made money was with classified ads. But with Craigslist providing classified ads and charging zero except for job listings in a few major cities and apartment rentals in New York, newspapers have lost a huge revenue stream.

But I discovered some good news. They, at least the Winnipeg Free Press and the Toronto Star, charge a hefty fee for obituaries.

The previous time I called in an obituary to a newspaper was December 19, 1969, when my mother had died that morning from cancer. We didn’t pay a thing and we got to use the wording that my mother had dictated to my brother.

The newspapers didn’t need to charge then. They made their money in other ways.

But last week, after my sister, April Henderson, had died in late November, I wrote up an obituary and contacted the Toronto Star and the Winnipeg Free Press. My sister had grown up in Manitoba and had spent most of her adult life in Toronto. So those were the natural places to place an obituary.

And the prices for a fairly short obituary were fairly steep: $370.19 in U.S. $ for the Toronto one and $256.26 for the Winnipeg one. It did have my sister’s beautiful college graduation picture from 1969 and that added to the price.

I wondered when newspapers started charging for obituaries and it appears that it started in the late 1990s. That makes sense when you consider that maybe they were starting to anticipate web-based competition on other parts of the newspaper. I found an article that, predictably, castigates greedy newspapers for charging for a valuable service. But I’m glad they charge such high prices, because it might keep newspapers around a little longer.

Moreover, because I was paying, I called the tune. I got to use this line, which I came up with after 2 hours of research:

In 1988, she [April] ran for Parliament in the Danforth riding as a Libertarian and received a higher percent of the vote than all but two of the other 87 Libertarian Party candidates for Parliament.

If it had been “free,” would the newspaper, in this PC time, have balked because that line was “too political?” Fortunately, I’ll never know.

David Henderson
David Henderson is a British economist. He was the Head of the Economics and Statistics Department at the OECD in 1984–1992. Before that he worked as an academic economist in Britain, first at Oxford (Fellow of Lincoln College) and later at University College London (Professor of Economics, 1975–1983); as a British civil servant (first as an Economic Advisor in HM Treasury, and later as Chief Economist in the Ministry of Aviation); and as a staff member of the World Bank (1969–1975). In 1985 he gave the BBC Reith Lectures, which were published in the book Innocence and Design: The Influence of Economic Ideas on Policy (Blackwell, 1986).

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