Tuesday, November 21, 2006

How to cover a funeral

After two seven-day weeks working across what seems like the entire publishing spectrum, I decided to take myself off for a long weekend in the country with one of my sons.

An early start, 300 miles of motorway and I was drying off from a stroll across Boscastle harbour in front of a roaring fire in the Cobweb Inn.

It’s one of those places you can imagine walking into on a dark evening where conversation stops, the boards creak underfoot and over the crackling of embers, someone mutters to the strangers: “If you’re heading back on t’ moor, mind you stick to the road.”

Instead, it was just real ale, real local banter and a real fire. No deadlines, no laptop - and no Beast of Bodmin.

And, of course, a chance to catch up with my favourite paper, the Cornish and Devon Post, a crumbly 150-year-old broadsheet with adverts all over the front page and more parish pump than you could serve up at a young farmers’ bring and buy.

Instead of blogs, there were logs: ads for them, piled high on the front page where the splash should be. ‘Cut and split to your requirements’ with bags of sawdust given away for 50p like scratchings at a chippie.

But inside, amongst the cheque presentations and spreads of Remembrance pictures was a page you’d never see on a Blackberry and one that'll probably be still standing long after the last podcast: the obituaries.

And these break all the rules of the obit writer's craft. Rather than recording the richness of country lives, the stories are all angled on the funeral services. No gripping intros recalling anti-bypass campaigners defeating County Hall Goliaths or penniless war veterans who returned to become tin mine millionaires.

Instead, we had: “There was a large representative attendance at Stoke Climsland Parish Church” or “The Funeral Sevice took place at Callington Methodist Church” and “A service of thanksgiving for the life of . . . took place at . . .”

After a paragraph or two about the deceased having “attended” school and being brave towards the end – came the real news - column-upon-column of mourners’ names.

And that means everyone. If you turned up, you made it into print. In this part of the world, village reporters stand at church doors as the bereaved file in and meticulously jot down their names, often who they came with, who they are representing - and they rarely get them wrong.

Upcountry emmets like me can laugh all we want but these people have been doing for years what the sharp suits in Soho are waking up to now: understanding what readers want and, maybe just occassionally, using the media as a marketing tool.

Put it this way: if the solicitor who prepared the dearly departed’s will couldn’t make it, he’d do well to send a junior exec with a business card. The auctioneer who cleared the cottage is likely to put in an appearance and so too is the local estate agent. Putting aside the genuine paying of respect, there's value in being seen and there's value in the dropping of a name in a column that's read more keenly than the leader page or the TV guide.

The editor knows too well that if postmistress Betty Sweetpickle didn’t show, tongues would wag as much as an appearance by councillor Potbelly and his rather peachy new secretary.

So everyone wins. Acres of must-read lineage and a PR machine that targets its audience closer than any blog.

Is that too cynical? Surely not. I never stood in a windy church doorway in my reporting days down there but I did get my gossip at the bar of the Cobweb and this is nothing that wan't hinted at more than once over a pint and a knowing smile.

But of course that was a long time ago.

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