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Readers react to obituary page changes

June 27, 2004|by Terry Headlee

We made two significant changes to our obituary page this month.

And like most changes we make to our newspaper, it was greeted with the usual mix of comments from readers.

We added a new feature in our Sunday newspaper called "A Life Remembered" in which we profile a local resident who died during the past week. The stories appear on our obituary page on page C3 each Sunday.

The point of this is to profile an ordinary person who touched the lives of many in our local community. Their stories are told through the voices of family, friends, co-workers and others.

Our first story appeared June 13 and featured Frank Edward Mattax. Mattax was well-known in the community as a ballroom dance instructor and danced at all five of his granddaughters' weddings.

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Our second story featured Gerald Hicks of Funkstown, who lived an extraordinary life devoted to helping others.

Today's story, written by Community Reporter Marlo Barnhart, is about Marguerite Stotler. Stotler, who died last week just three months shy of her 100th birthday, is a former postmaster in Hancock.

There's no question in my mind that this is a feature that readers are going to enjoy over time.

The reason is that it focuses on ordinary people who have led extraordinary lives. These are people who made a difference in our local community in their own quiet, humble ways.

The late Gerald Hicks is a perfect example of this. Anyone who knew him well will know what I'm talking about.

Our second change, which seems to be a little more controversial, involved changing the content and design of the heading above each obituary.

Prior to this month, we only published the person's full name above his or her obituary.

We changed that to include their age at death, date of birth and date of death.

In our industry, this is known as a "tombstone" headline. The idea is to make the obituary appear more honorable and give readers more information about the deceased in an easier-to-read format.

I think most readers will like the change. But some already have expressed their disappointment with it.

One reader called in to say she didn't like the new format. "Why did you have to change it?" she asked without elaborating. Another reader phoned this message into our "Mail Call" hotline: "... I don't like it with the age up there, it just throws you way off.''

Other readers liked the new format.

"I can't believe that people are calling in and complaining about the new obituary format,'' said one reader in our Tuesday edition of Mail Call - printed in our afternoon newspaper, The Daily Mail. "... I think it's nice that the name is bold, the age, the date of birth and the date of death. Why are you complaining, it's ridiculous. Get a life, people."

Another reader had this to say in Mall Call about those complaining about the new format: "I don't see anything wrong with the way obituaries are printed. Just thank God that people don't see your name in there."

Just like our new "A Life Remembered" feature, I also believe our new format will be liked and embraced by readers. In both cases, these are changes that not only are better for readers, but also give the deceased the respect they deserve.

Terry Headlee is executive editor of The Herald-Mail. He may be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7594, or by e-mail at terryh@herald-mail.com.

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