Craigslist vs. Newspaper Classifieds

More clouds on the horizon for papers that don’t change their ways. Steve Outing writes in Editor & Publisher that the traditional newspaper classified is under attack with free, online alternatives such as Craigslist (which I’m using extensively as I settle into my new home in the Bay Area) and eBay.

Of course, the merchandise/other category — which at its core includes private-party sales, garage sales and the like — accounts for only 17% of the total U.S. classifieds pie of $15.8 billion (2003 figures). Says Newspaper Association of America vice president for advertising Mort Goldstrom, the segment may be small compared to the traditional classified cash cows of jobs, real estate and autos, but it’s important because it’s a “readership thing.”

17% seems too much to write off in a world of declining subscriptions and ad revenue. The suggestion is that newspapers add value to their printed classifieds by bundling in a newsprint purchase with an online entry. I would take that a step further and offer photos, maps (to yard sales), and other online tools to make commerce easier for the one-time seller. If there is one thing that newspapers have that the online sites don’t is a foot in both the online and print world.

When I was selling subscriptions to wsj.com in Japan, I had a funny exchange with a private investor who was quite enamored at being able to print out closing stock quotes that he looked up online. He then went on to enquire if wsj.com had a page that would allow him to print out the closing prices of all the stocks on the NASDAQ, he liked to have this so he could scan through them in one go. I had to think about it a bit but the answer came to me as I looked over to the fellow next to me who was selling subscriptions to The Asian Wall Street Journal. Not only did Dow Jones have just the service he was looking for, we could get this printout to him delivered on his doorstep each morning using the most advanced offset printing technology!

In much the same way, a newspaper’s classified is a wonderfully efficient way to browse through and see how many people in your neighborhood have an old, beat up car for sale that you might use for commuting. Once you narrow the list down, a weblink for each entry that allowed you to look at details like the Carfax report or a picture would help close the deal. This initial scan is something that the online listings are struggling to replicate.

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