At the beginning of "Page One," an American documentary about the New York Times, a newscaster announces that the death notice pages of American newspapers are full of news about the demise of newspapers themselves. Signs of the crisis in the print newspaper business are also visible in Israel. But, unlike news, sports and lifestyle coverage - areas in which the newspaper industry faces serious competition from digital media - there is at least one field in which print newspapers have no real competitors. And that's the publication of death notices.
Overall advertising rates at Israeli newspapers have sunk in recent years, but that's not the case when it comes to death notices, which are placed by the family of the deceased, generally with funeral details, or in tribute to the person by individuals or institutions. A standard death notice currently runs between NIS 2,400 and NIS 2,600 and the price for larger notices can run as high as NIS 15,000. The cost varies from paper to paper and is also affected by the timing of the ad. Notices in weekend newspapers are nearly NIS 1,000 more expensive than those appearing in the middle of the week.
In light of the large sums generated by death notices, one might have expected Internet entrepreneurs to jump at the opportunity to "free" mourners from their dependence on the print media, as they did with job ads, real estate advertising and the sale of used merchandise and cars. So far, however, that has barely been the case. True, last week the Yedioth Aharonoth newspaper group launched its Zikaronet memorial website, but there are only two independent websites in the country devoted to death notices. One of them, andarta.co.il, which features death notices placed directly with the website, may itself be on the way out. Its manager told Haaretz that the company through which the site was run has already ceased operations, but he didn’t provide additional details.
The leading website in the field is called Avelim, Hebrew for “mourners,” which was launched in October 2010, by attorney Yoram Zarah. “I was surprised that such a thing didn’t already exist,” he told Haaretz. “Back then, I was an assistant to the CEO at the Israeli Standards Institute and, when his mother died, I wanted to find out information about the shiva – where and when. Today, we’re used to just looking on Google for everything we need, more so than using printed newspapers, but when I looked online, I saw that the information just wasn’t there.”
Zarah explained that his initiative was bolstered by a Tel Aviv District Court decision concerning the AllJobs website. “They would take job postings from printed newspapers and publish them online,” he said. “The newspapers sued them, but the court decided it was legal, as long as the website provided the information and credited the original source, instead of copying them word for word. I said to myself, ‘let’s do the same thing with death notices.’”
The beginning wasn’t easy, Zarah says. “The website looked terrible, but I realized very quickly that it was generating traffic. Today, we get about 1,500 hits per day. Users can post notices directly on the website, but our primary source of information is still the listings posted in newspapers, along with the funeral schedule posted by kadisha.biz, a Tel Aviv-based chevra kadisha [burial society] which is updated online in real time. Our website does not offer postings for newspapers, but it does allow users to design their own printed notices for posting in the street.”
Making the transition to the internet, even if taken very slowly, completely changes the way that people find death notices. Today, while thumbing through a newspaper, readers just “happen upon” such notices, but on the Internet users must actively visit a specific website or search for an individual’s name. “Ninety percent of my traffic comes from name searches. People hear that someone has passed away, or they have just partial information, and they search for the rest on Google. The other 10 percent of traffic comes from those who know who has passed away recently,” explains Zarah. “Mostly, it’s people who have some information but are looking for more, or are checking up on close friends or distant relatives. There have been more than a few condolence messages that read ‘I looked for my teacher from elementary school, and was amazed to see a death notice.’”
What do you mean, condolence messages?
“In actuality, they’re talkbacks. People feel a strong need to respond. The thing that amazed me most while dealing with this website was the speed with which people just bare it all: children who write heartbreaking letters to their fathers, or other things like that. It’s just amazing to see them happen like that, out in the open. Today, the website lists over 30,000 deceased, and about 7,000 condolence messages.”
And, yes, a short trip through the website reveals true losses. “For 22 years you were part of the view,” wrote someone regarding a lost teacher. “Always there, in every place, in every corner. For years you educated and taught generations of children, and always knew how to say, ‘this one… is like my son’, or ‘the girl I loved like my own daughter.’”
Another mourner wrote: “My words are written to you, not about you. I did not know how hard it would be to say goodbye. I still haven’t grasped the fact that I won’t see or talk to you anymore… you told me over the last few months, many times, that I was a good friend, but I feel that I wasn’t good enough – I could have been much better. I’m sorry for the days I wasn’t there, for the times when life took us in different directions, for the things we didn’t get to experience, and won’t get to.”
Attnorney Naomi Asiya published a notice this week on the Avelim website about a friend who had passed away. “It’s impossible to compare notices posted online to those printed in newspapers,” she says. “A printed notice costs thousands of shekels, and even then I would send a line or two. Here on the website, it’s much cheaper, and there is room to write more in-depth.” Asiya, a grandmother of four, with two more grandchildren on the way, says that she tends not to read the death notices in the newspapers on a daily basis. But she definitely “skims them, just to make sure I didn’t miss anyone important, heaven forbid.”
The need for people to share and react to death notices seems to point to one direction: Facebook. It turns out that Avelim has a page on Facebook, which is updated daily with new notices, but it is not regarded as a huge success.
“Although we have about 800 likes,” says Zarah, “there are a few problems. First, the feed moves very quickly. If someone passed away three days ago, and you only heard about it now and want to get the info, it will be very hard for you to find it on Facebook. But the big problem is that Facebook is simply a very happy place and death notices just seem out of place on a Facebook wall.”
What about an app?
“We’ve got an Android app, but not an iPhone app yet. Regardless, these are aimed towards people who are interested in checking the death notices daily, which is not most people. If someone is interested in a specific person, they won’t open an app and check it every day, so it’s just not right for most people.”
When asked about the future of the field, Zarah isn’t quick to write off newspapers. “You need to consider the age group that death notices serve,” he says. “These are people who are much slower to respond to technological innovation. If an 80-year-old man passes away, and he had been a subscriber to Haaretz for his whole life, reading the newspaper was a central part of his daily life, of his identity, even. He would want the news of his death to reach his social circle, his peers, in a medium that is comfortable for them – and they still read the newspapers. For the over-60 crowd, newspapers are still much more significant.”
So you don’t think this field will become exclusively digital?
“If you’d have asked me that a year ago, I would have said that the situation today is illogical; that this field must transition to the internet. But, now, I understand a little more and I think that the communities that make most use of the notices are more in line with print media. So, even though I’m sure that, in the end, it will be all-online, I think it will take at least a decade, maybe 10 to 15 more years.”