Alison Gerber: Life, death and readers' habits

Alison Gerber: Life, death and readers' habits

January 13th, 2013 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

For years, the Times Free Press published obituaries in four categories: Hamilton County, Tennessee, Georgia and Other Areas.

On Monday, Jan. 7, we switched to a new system. Instead of dividing the obits by geographic area, we lumped them all together alphabetically. Prior to making that move, we'd heard some feedback that this would be easier to read, and it seemed to make sense.

But as soon as the paper hit driveways on the morning of Jan. 7, the phones started ringing. Readers had a loud-and-clear message: Don't change the obituaries.

I'd always known that the obits are a well-read part of the paper. Last week, I found out just how much people care about that information.

I didn't get a single call from anyone who liked the new format, nor did my colleagues in our Classifieds Department. I got lots and lots of calls from readers upset, even angry, that we'd dared to change (or "mess up," as most said) how the obits are presented.

Everyone had a theory about why we changed it and a comment.

One man told me he figured we'd changed it because some people on the Georgia side of Lookout Mountain prefer for people to think they're from the Tennessee side. He figured snobbery is alive even in death.

Another guessed it was easier for us to place the obituaries if they were not divided by state.

I don't care who died in Georgia or Alabama, another told me.

"Why would you do such a thing?" one reader asked me, as if I'd just drop-kicked her puppy or callously plucked a pacifier from the mouth of her happy, cooing grandchild.

One woman said she's getting on in years and wants to see if anyone she knows has passed, but she rarely recognizes any names outside Hamilton County.

These kinds of comments make it obvious that the last words written about someone's life matter to a lot of people, and not just the deceased's family.

The truth is we honestly thought it would be easier for people to read the obits alphabetically rather than jumping around to four different spots. It's that simple. We were not actively trying to confuse our readers. I promise.

But we underestimated the power of habit. That's the thing about print newspapers: They involve a lot of habit.

Plenty of subscribers read the paper at the same time every day, maybe with their coffee or breakfast, often while sitting in the same chair or spot on the sofa. They read certain pages or sections first. I know husbands and wives who have a routine about who gets what section first and when they trade off.

I heard from someone who said she always reads Page A2 first because she likes to start the day with celebrity news before moving on to serious news. I'd rather start with Kim Kardashian than Obama and Boehner or those revolutionaries in Syria, she laughed.

One reader told me she always reads the bankruptcies and divorces first on the days they run.

The upshot is that nobody likes their daily routine messed with. And last week, many, many readers told me that obits are a major part of their daily routine and they don't want them changed.

Message received. After hearing from many regular readers of the obituaries, we decided to change them back. So on Friday, the obits went back to the same format they've been in for years, divided into Hamilton County, Tennessee, Georgia and Other Areas.

Take this as proof that we do listen to our readers. While we will change things that we believe need changing -- staying stagnant is not an option -- we realize that these changes may make some people unhappy, so we expect and want feedback.

And while we may not always do -- or undo -- what you want us to do, we aren't ignoring you. A newspaper -- like the news we print -- is a fluid thing that's always changing, and we realize that some things we try may not work out.

Like changing the obits.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at Send suggestions to readerfeedback@timesfree