Legacy responds to our recommendations

April 7th, 2010

Legacy.com, sponsor of our research project into obituaries and death notices, is taking steps to implement some of our recommendations.

And our team’s final report is now available for public release.

Here’s a breakdown of our key recommendations and a summary of Legacy’s responses.

Recommendation: Create a new Web site, Legacy Chronicles, geared to the interests of obituary fans.

Legacy’s response: While the company is not going to create such a site at this time, Legacy has launched a new section of its existing site called “Legacies,” to “address the needs of obituary fans and others who want to explore some of the rich life stories stored in our database,” said Hayes Ferguson, the company’s chief operating officer, in a written response to the class’s recommendations.

The new section organizes obituaries based on common themes, such as actors, poets or Major League Baseball players.

“We plan to expand the number of sites to commemorate people from many walks of life – teachers, police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, and others — and to integrate these inspiring sites into every affiliate Web site we host,” said Stopher Bartol, CEO of Legacy.com. “We think this will capture the spirit of what the Medill team envisioned, while expanding the concept’s scope and reach.”

Recommendation: Redesign and reposition Legacy.com to serve grievers and encourage the creation of online memorials to the deceased.

Legacy’s response: The company is making some changes to better serve this audience. For example, Legacy recently added a feature that allows users to “light a virtual candle” in honor of a loved one – an idea specifically suggested by the students. “We had talked about doing something like this for a while, but the Medill team made it clear that the time to do this is now,” Ferguson said.

Recommendation: Improve search technology on Legacy.com

Legacy’s response: By the end of 2010, “we will introduce a powerful new search and notification engine that will provide users easier and faster access to our affiliates’ content, through features such as full text keyword searches, advanced filtering and automated alerts,” Ferguson said. “We appreciate Medill’s focus on the power of our database and for urging us to make search a priority.”

Recommendation: Improve Legacy’s Web analytics system to better understand user behavior.

Legacy’s response: The students’ work “reinforced our desire to improve our Web analytics system to better understand user behavior,” Ferguson said. “We just hired a Web analytics manager to replace one who left Legacy.com shortly before the Medill project got underway.”

Recommendation: Capitalize on newspaper partnerships if possible – but be willing to go it alone if necessary.

Legacy’s response: “We remain steadfast in our belief that our success is intertwined with that of our newspaper affiliates,” Ferguson said. Bartol said that Legacy believes the newspaper relationships are the key to building a successful Web business for both Legacy and its newspaper affiliates.

“While we continue to expand the features and functionality of our memorial products, our emphasis is on building bridges from our newspaper affiliates to funeral homes, social media, and other places where people are paying tribute,” Bartol said. “Ultimately, we’ve found that what makes a memorial the most compelling is the volume and richness of input from those who knew or cared about the deceased, and its reach and accessibility to others. This is something that Legacy.com and its affiliates accomplish like no one else.”

You can read more about the latest developments, and Legacy’s complete response to our recommendations, on the Medill Web site.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Goodbye and thanks from all of us

December 14th, 2009

And thus our 10-week project has … kicked the bucket.  As the end has arrived, we hope you learned something new from our exploration of the obituary tradition.

For those of you new to our blog, eight students participated in the fall 2009 Medill Interactive Innovation project.  We were charged with two challenging and complex tasks: to (1) perform detailed research of the American obituary, and (2) to reinvent Legacy.com, an obituary publishing company that partners with newspapers across the country and one of the internet’s 100 most visited websites.  For eleven weeks we worked, eventually releasing “The State of the American Obituary”, a report chronicling the history of English-language obituary culture.  Finally, taking into account the changing media landscape and its effect on print media, we released a series of recommendations and design ideas that we believe can transform Legacy into the hub for commemorating loved ones in America.  (Please read more about our project in our first entry of October 2, 2009.)

In this blog we explored not only this project but all things “obituary”.  Read our favorite obituaries of the week posted several Fridays throughout the project.  Read our humorous compilation of synonyms for death, and read our interviews with Washington Post obituary writer Patricia Sullivan and Tribune obituary writer Trevor Jensen. Read about our design process in “Testing the Tests”, and read our series on obituaries from different English-language countries which began with England on November 11.

And please, keep exploring — there’s so much more on this blog and beyond.

Thanks for following us!


The Team

Sticky: Report: “The State of the American Obituary”

November 30th, 2009

Nov 30, 2009
7:00 a.m., CDT


To better understand the nature of our project and the role of Legacy.com in today’s obituary publishing industry, the Fall 2009 Interactive Innovation Project team at the Medill School of Journalism has been diligently researching the history and trends of American obituary writing. We have summarized our findings in a report that we have released this morning. In this report, we examine the nature of the contemporary American obituary, a phenomenon that constitutes an important content category for modern newspapers – and, increasingly, for publishers in other media.

Like many content categories, obituaries are being transformed by changes in audience behavior and media technology. Once just a concise piece of text reserved for the elite members of society, an obituary can now be created for anyone and can now include multimedia. Mourners can gather not just in a church or funeral home, but also on social networking sites and memorial pages that live on long after the lives that inspired them have ended. This report tracks these changes as they have evolved.

We would like to thank Ian, Ming and Ashley as the principal writers and researchers of the report.

Read report: “The State of the American Obituary”


About the Interactive Innovation Project team

Meet the Interactive Innovation Project team

Passing of Mr. Pop-Up Book

November 23rd, 2009

As a kid, if you had the choice between a boring, old regular book with pages that only had pictures on them, or a POP-UP book with pictures that semi-literally jumped off the page, which would you choose? Thanks to the late Waldo Hunt, you had the choice.

A Chicago-native and World War II vet, Hunt first worked in advertising but lost interest in the field. Instead he became enchanted with a pop-up book from Czechoslovakia. He went on to design a pop-up ad for Wrigley’s gum, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Read more about Waldo Hunt’s life in his full obituary from the Los Angeles Times.

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A note of focus group

November 20th, 2009

We conducted a focus group yesterday to get a sense of how people feel about our new design of legacy’s Website. As an observer, here are some of my rough findings.

  • Most people don’t like the brown color. They prefer something warmer and upbeat, such as orange or other welcoming colors.
  • At the first glance, they couldn’t get the point of the editorial page, especially the name of “featured lives”. But when they further explored on that page, they found it valuable to read. So it seems the most important thing is how to impress the first-time user and lead them to check that page.
  • Almost everyone loves the memorial page. Someone said, “It’s very warm, personal, and well-organized without any unnessary ‘flash’.” They all believe that a lof of bereaved and friends/family would like this page a lot and highly potentially pay for this service. Also, they really appreciated the virtual candle idea.

Lincoln “Stepin Fetchit” Perry died today in 1985 …

November 19th, 2009

And as I looked around the internet, I couldn’t find a real obituary for him, which surprised me since 1985 wasn’t that long ago. I also was pretty disappointed. Not only is Perry’s stage name a name that’s thrown around a lot in popular culture- enough to merit widespread memorializing and analysis- it’s another reminder of the kinds of people the research has shown our society chooses to remember, and how they remember them.

One of the more interesting and relatively fair articles I found about Perry came from NPR in 2006 on the occasion of Mel Watkins’ biography of Stepin Fetchit.

Here’s the link to “Stepin Fetchit, Hollywood’s First Black Film Star”.

And here’s Perry’s IMDB page, too.

Categories: Favorite Obits Tags:

Featuring obits

November 18th, 2009

A prevalent topic throughout our work the last several weeks has regarded the “featured” obit — a story of life, not death.  As has been previously highlighted on this blog, The Economist applies this theme in its obituary writing, choosing to focus on the anecdotes, accomplishments and biographical details of great lives lived, as opposed to the aspects of those figures’ demise.  Our research and conclusions have led us to believe that this approach is sound, and we believe it wise for publications to incorporate it.

Read more…

Surprisingly, Australian Obits Don’t Impress Me

November 14th, 2009

Researching how obituaries are written in Australia, I was quite surprised that I couldn’t find obituary sections in Australia’s major national newspapers. My first impression is that there isn’t as much cultural emphasis on obituaries as in other places such as the United States or England.

Two newspapers did include obituary sections: The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. Examples of obituaries in these newspapers, however, only reinforce the point that obituaries don’t seem to play as big of a role in Australia’s newspaper culture.

In my opinion, the obituaries I saw in these newspapers were not particularly well written. For example, this Sydney Morning News obit of Nancy Petyarre, an aboriginal artist, was overly formulaic and kind of dry. Instead of an interesting article about this person’s life and achievements, this obit reads like a lengthy version of a death notice.

Another obit from the Age about Joseph Lester “Jody” Powell, White House Secretary under Jimmy Carter, is a bit more similar to British obituaries in its acknowledgment of controversy and scandal. For example:

“On the campaign trail he began by revealing that Carter’s net personal wealth was $US810,000 and his peanut farm was worth $US348,000 – but was soon confronted by Carter’s admission in a Playboy interview that he had committed ‘adultery in his heart many times’. Asked if such bluntness would hurt the Carter campaign, he calmly replied: ‘I can’t imagine that it would.’”

But aside from a few of those amusing glimpses into Powell’s career, the rest of the obit also sticks to the generic obit formula and it didn’t particularly hold my interest.

These obituaries definitely exhibit some influence from British obituary culture. Unfortunately they’re not nearly as interesting.

Obituaries in Wales are just so different

November 13th, 2009

I always find it’s interesting to explore the different writing styles across countries. When I first got the assignment of obituaries in Wales, I expected it to be more or less influenced by British ones, probably due to the geographic reason.  But when I deep look at them, it seems I’m wrong. I tried to come to a conclusion about how obituaries in Wales look like in general. The result was I couldn’t. Different papers seem have different tastes.

Here’s a national paper South Wales Echo, whose obituaries seem more like resumes to me. I’ll show you an example.

Obituary: Emyr Currie-Jones

Dec 2 2008 by Catherine Mary Evans, South Wales Echo

EMYR CURRIE-JONES was one of the most worthy and estimable figures in local government, especially in educational affairs in Cardiff and Glamorgan, during the past half century.

He figured prominently in the resolution of several highly controversial issues during that period.

He was also the first chairman of the newly-created South Glamorgan County Council, serving from 1973 to 1975, and a member for the city’s Ely ward from 1981 to 1989.

Mr Currie-Jones, beloved husband of the late Mary, was born in Caernarfon and became a well-known and highly respected solicitor in Cardiff.

He acted as prosecuting solicitor for the Cardiff City Council from 1950 to 1955 and subsequently as partner in the practice of Rees, Currie-Jones, Davies and Evans in the Castle Arcade Chambers North until his retirement in 1987, later as consultant solicitor.

He was a past president of the Cardiff and District Law Society and a member of numerous councils and committees including the Welsh Joint Education Committee and Welsh Language Council.

For more than 20 years, Mr Currie-Jones was also a member of the Council of the then University College of Cardiff.

A fluent Welsh speaker, he had been involved in the affairs of his chapel at Minny Street, devoting many years to the chapel as its secretary.

He also served as a member of the Council of the Welsh Congregational Churches.

He was a past member of the Courts of Governors of the University Colleges of Swansea, the Council of the Welsh National School of Medicine, the Court of the National Library of Wales and the Welsh Books Council.

He also served for years on the Council of the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales and was the chairman of the executive committee of the National Eisteddfod when it was held in Cardiff in 1978.

He received a warm welcome when he attended some of the sessions of the Eisteddfod held in Pontcanna this year.

Mr Currie-Jones was awarded the CBE for his work in local government in 1976. He died on October 13.

Read more…

Categories: Analysis, Obits by Country Tags:

Obits in Ireland

November 13th, 2009

I’ve been checking out Irish obituaries, and initially they looked pretty similar to American ones. In fact, it seems that Americans and Irish-Americans are common subjects for prominent obituaries.

The difference I noticed, though, came in the language of death notices. I looked at the death notices in the Irish Times (the major paper in Dublin) and the New York Times to see how the language in Irish death notices is different than the language in American death notices.

For example:

MINOR–Emily Chadbourne, 94, died October 30 in Rye, NY. Survived by her son John and daughters Kathleen, Jane and Caroline, 14 grandchildren, 23 great-grandchildren. Service at Christ’s Church Rye, NY, December 3, 11am.

This is a death notice from the New York Times. And while the language in the paid death notices varies some, mostly the notices are pretty straightforward, maybe saying that the deceased died “peacefully” or that the person was loved, but the

Irish death noticed seemed much different to me.

This is a typical death notice from the Irish Times:

JOHNSTON (Nephin Road, Dublin 7) – November 11, 2009, (peacefully), at St. Francis Hospice, Raheny, Ellen, much loved sister of the late Sheila, Patrick and Desmond; deeply regretted by her loving nephew Desmond, relatives and friends. Rest in peace. Removal from St. Francis Hospice to the Church of Our Lady Help of Christians, Navan Road this (Friday) evening arriving at 5 o’clock Funeral tomorrow (Saturday) after 10 o’clock Mass to Glasnevin Crematorium. Donations in lieu of flowers to St. Francis Hospice, Raheny.

The differences that I noticed were, in general, Irish death notices are longer. They also use language that seems more emotional, almost effusive. “sadly missed,” “treasured” and something about the cause- “peacefully” or “unexpectedly.”

I would like to find out if it’s cheaper to post death notices in Ireland, and that’s why they are generally longer, or if they are important enough for people to pay for many lines.

Mostly, from the little browsing I’ve done, Irish and American obituaries and death notices are pretty similar. Irish obits seems similar also in that they don’t usually show “worts and all.” Maybe one of you has first-hand knowledge you can share with me.