Can LifePosts’ Digital Obits Provide Clues for Sustainable Local Publishing?

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Obituaries of local folks were a staple of print newspapers. Dad in his easy chair was the principal reader. He would alert Mom to a singular summing up, which might prompt a moment of fond remembrance, or the opposite, during table talk at the family dinner. But obits aren’t that big in the digital era, even though people continue to die with the same regularity. That could change with LifePosts, founded by Steve Waldman, who knows local news both as an entrepreneurial publisher and deeply informed analyst on the subject for the Federal Communications Commission five years ago.

In this Q & A, Waldman, whose wife, Amy Cunningham, is a funeral director, tells how LifePosts will “ensure that every person’s life story can be beautifully told, vividly celebrated and permanently preserved for future generations,” and do so profitably.

With Facebook and other social platforms, can’t people post memorials and celebrations of family members, dear friends and people in their community they admire, and do it free of charge and to an audience that would include everyone they’d want to reach?
Social media covers some of it but is often insufficient to the task and inappropriate for the moment. First, you have the Juxtaposition Problem – i.e. cat videos and angry political tirades alongside a memorial for your father. And deep condolences are not well conveyed through a yellow cartoon character shedding a little emoji tear. It’s also fleeting and ephemeral. Second, posting on Facebook doesn’t actually get it to your full list. It gets it to a small fraction of the list, determined by Facebook’s algorithm, not your needs.

Most important, social media can be good for parts of it but the experience can be so much better – if you construct storytelling tools that are specifically designed to help people curate a permanent tribute. We put a lot of effort into creating tools that produce beautiful tributes even if you’re not a natural-born storyteller or writer. For instance, we have a question-and-answer prompt tool (called LifeQs) that offer a range of prompts to help you get started.  Also, these are much better for collaborative storytelling. It’s really easy to organize stories and media from friends and family.  All in all, these tools enable you to go far beyond a quick announcement toward crafting a real digital keepsake. So a 50th wedding anniversary is not just an announcement of the big day but a way to tell the story of the whole marriage.

Last year, you said at the Local Independent Online News publishers’ convention in Chicago, “In the context of a $7,000 funeral, paying $25 or $500 for the obituary is cheap, In Brooklyn alone, there are 15,000 deaths per year. Only 2,000 were reported on. So 13,000 stories were not written.” But LifePosts is not just a tool to get obituaries published in newspapers and on their websites — it would replace obituaries and create much broader memorials and celebrations on its own space, right?
One of our goals is to work closely with local media. We view this as a way to enable them to turbo-charge their “hyper personal” news, taking it far beyond memorials to other life milestones (graduation, births, weddings, retirements, religious milestones, major birthdays, wedding anniversaries, pet memorials). We’re building out a syndication system that would allow partners to have the LifePosts live on their sites so they can capture value. First, its obviously a powerful form of content and engagement. In addition, they will be able to monetize those page views 100% on their site. They could create special sections and draw sponsors. They could use these to support an events business. (So a local site that’s doing an event celebrating say, 40 business leaders under 40, could have LifePosts created for them.) And then once we start charging, we’ll explore rev share. The Dodge Foundation gave us a grant to build a WordPress plug in for local news sites. And after that, we’ll be building this out in a variety of other ways. It will take a little while for the partnership system to be fully developed but we think there is a strong and obvious value exchange: Local partners get free use of tools, highly engaging content, increased user loyalty, monetizable page views and eventually rev share. We get marketing of our tools and brand.

So local websites can partner with LifePosts, and do some community good and generate new revenue as well?
Yes! And each time we talk to a hyperlocal site, they come up with very creative ideas for how they can use this to advance their own plans for engagement and revenue.

You say on your site, “Create beautiful commemorations honoring the most important people & milestones in your life. It’s easy and free for now.” Explain what you mean by “free for now.”
Eventually, our business model is a consumer payment. Users will pay for some part of the experience through  a freemium model. But we’re going to keep it free for a while as we fine tune. We don’t know right now the exact way we’ll slice it (or the price) but we can say this: we wont charge for people to READ these. We wont charge for friends and family to post to a LifePost. And we will not attempt the coercive tactic of threatening to take down a memorial if they don’t pay more money. By the way, LifePosts that are created during the free period will be grandfathered in. It’s not like a three-month trial. If you build a LifePost now, it’ll be free forever.

You talk about “Pet Memorials,” and give the example of James, a late bichon frise-poodle mongrel whom the grieving family had  found at an animal shelter. Is this a true story?
Absolutely. The loss of a pet can be a BIG deal, a real emotional convulsion for a family. There should be no shame in creating a memorial page with videos, photos and stories to help remember him/her/it by. In general, yes, LifePosts is a platform for real people to remember and celebrate the people (or animals) and milestones that are most significant in their lives.

LifePost could include an extensive variety of events. Would people want to memorialize a miscarriage?
Absolutely, some will. In fact, my wife wrote a beautiful memorial for a miscarriage. And the reaction from other women was very moving. One wrote, “It was so helpful to read your post, and to hear how you commemorated your loss. I think having a small and simple ceremony like the one that you describe would have done wonders for me and for my husband, and would have provided some very needed closure.”

Oftentimes, people feel it’s inappropriate to grieve in a circumstance like that, but it’s a real loss.

People who join LifePosts would be able to “share and preserve [memorials and celebrations] forever.” Explain how that would happen.
We have arranged for Archive-It – an archival service created by the Internet Archive – to create archival versions of the public-facing LifePosts. So if LifePosts went away, the commemoration would live on. Beyond that, we’re working on a tool so you can easily turn your LifePost into a physical book.

Who’s on your staff, and what are their roles?
Ju-Don Marshall Roberts is our chief operating officer. She was managing editor of the (with Jim Brady) and later held senior positions at Everyday Health, Beliefnet and the Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative media.  Ned Berke is our senior editor. He was the founder and editor of two terrific hyperlocal sites in Brooklyn: Sheepshead Bites and Bensonhurst Bean.

Do you have external financing?
Yes, we have angel financing from (imho) a rather impressive crew including: Dick Costolo (former CEO of Twitter); Lauren Zalaznick (former EVP of NBCUniversal), Larry Hackett (former editor of People magazine); Jon Miller (former head of digital at News Corp and president of Aol); Julius Genachowski (former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission); Jonathan Alter (author and journalist), and many others [scroll toward bottom of link].

How are you getting the word out to potential LifePosters? Have you actually started making connections?
We are starting outreach to potential partners in five categories: local media, national media, funeral homes, houses of worship and affinity groups that might have interest in commemorating people or milestones (colleges, veterans groups, etc). Also, l Stu Loesser, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s press secretary, has come aboard to do our PR.  And of course the best ambassadors so far have been the people who have made LifePosts and who then tell or show their  family and friends.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.