Local Interactive Strategies

Can this model be saved?

My friend Steve Outing is part of a new initiative called Reinventing Classifieds, which aims to “revive newspaper classifieds by finding a new business model that’s relevant in the Internet age.” Sounds like a noble cause, and it has some new technology behind it, and we can always use some new thinking, so it’s worth checking out.

Steve’s kickoff blog post is titled “Can newspaper classifieds really be saved?” — which sure sounds like a dare to me, so here goes.

“Classifieds” is one of those funny words that we all understand to mean a whole lot of things. It’s like a big tangle of string, and you can’t tell where it starts or ends, or how many pieces are really in there.

Is it somebody selling their couch, like in the local Penny Saver?  or on Craigslist? Is it a car dealer who buys a full-page newspaper ad because his competitor did, and he can’t risk being second fiddle? Is it a real-estate agent buying a newspaper ad because the seller demands it? Is it a hospital offering a bounty to employees who recruit a new nurse? Is it Is it eBay?

I don’t know, but all those behaviors and products and technologies are wound up in that tangle of string, and only a few of us call that tangle “classifieds.”

Allow me to reach in and tug at a thread. Hospitals are having a horrible time hiring enough doctors and nurses. What are some possible solutions, and how many of those solutions can the newspaper help with? Can the newspaper really make much of a difference by making their “classifieds” the best they can possibly be, in print, online, on mobile? Probably not: those solutions will only reach the nurses and doctors who are in the market for a new job, and that’s not the problem. OK, so what is the newspaper able and willing to help with? This is where creative folks need to get involved, climb outside the box that says “classifieds,” talk to the hospital about what works and what doesn’t, and invent some solutions. I expect the ideas would push a lot of boundaries, and some would pose ethical issues. Sadly, many wouldn’t fly because of newspaper cultural issues, not ethics.

All of which is a long way around to Steve’s question “Can newspaper classifieds really be saved?” My fear is that by defining the challenge as “saving classifieds” rather than “figuring out how to help employers/realtors/auto dealers solve problems” we could be missing opportunities to redefine newspapers’ role of bringing people together to do business.

Which is what we used to call “classifieds.”

April 23, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. To me, classifieds are a bulletin board for the community. Honestly, I can’t imagine what would happen if the classifieds went away. I know you like to talk about the failing business model and “effective” adverising, but I just skim.

    Honestly? I will often not know I’m interested in something when I start looking at classifieds. Now, perhaps the issue is that classifieds have been hijacked by people looking to advertise on the cheap. But if that’s the issue, those people sure wont want to pay big bucks to “maximize the effectiveness” of your classified machine.

    To untangle your metaphor we need to look at from where the word “classified” comes, i.e. “Classified Ad.” That’s it. It was only ever an advertisement which, instead of being pasted in a prominent spot next to content (which carried a bigger price because people not looking for a used car would be more likely to see it), was placed in a directory of ads.

    What you do with that knowledge is your own problem. I for one am going to go buy a paper to flip through the classifieds. Who knows, maybe I’ll find that antique waffle iron I didn’t know I wanted.

    Comment by Colin | April 29, 2008 | Reply

  2. I totally agree. The printed classifieds are a powerful medium for suggesting you buy “that antique waffle iron I didn’t know I wanted.”
    Ironically (given the theme of this blog) I share your concern that newspapers aren’t working on making the printed classifieds more enjoyable and useful.
    To be clear, I don’t think the business model is failing. I do think newspapers need to get way more focused on the changing behaviors of print and online consumers, and somehow be ahead of that curve, not behind it.

    Comment by joemichaud | April 30, 2008 | Reply

  3. It’s true. I feel as though the major media outlets in this country have grown fairly static. Far be it from me to say what they do in their office meetings, but it appears as though nobody at the top has really looked long and hard at the philosophy behind news and it’s primary revenue source, ads.

    Philosophically, why do these companies have an interest in the news? Most products put out by these companies have tag lines like “The information you need to know,” or “What you need, to know.” There’s a certain assumption that they know what’s best. But when you can’t keep up with changes in medium, or dismiss them as a fad, you’ve done a disservice to those who do trust you and you’ve also begun to dig your own grave.

    That’s a little off topic, but I would agree that getting to the front of the wave and really feeling free to experiment with new ideas is very crucial to an information service company.

    Comment by Colin | April 30, 2008 | Reply

  4. My wife and I are avid print classified readers. We look at them weekly without the intent to buy. Oddly enough, we don’t read the newspaper’s online classifieds. If we are looking for a used bike or an antique waffle iron we go right to Craigslist.

    I believe there is a disconnect between the newspaper’s print classifieds and their online version. It’s a shame because the print classified section is probably the strongest possible promotion tool to convert print readers into multimedia consumers.

    I’ve been toying with a model that is a mash-up of Craigslist, Facebook and Ebay that drives consumer awareness and would create a following. Every classified advertiser should have a persona and be rated just like we rate restaurants, plumbers, etc.

    The increased audience will lead to incremental revenue from other areas.

    Comment by Stan Gauss | May 7, 2008 | Reply

  5. I like that idea, Stan. One of the major issues I have with Craigslist is the sheer amount of junk posts. Keeping people honest is great, and with a paper you have the advantage that a large part of your job is already encouraging community growth. Thanks for sharing!

    Comment by Colin | May 7, 2008 | Reply

  6. Simon Owens’ Bloggasm weighs in on the Reinventing Classifieds with some comments from Steve Outing:

    Comment by Joe Michaud | June 4, 2008 | Reply

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