Monday, September 8, 2008

And When You Least Expect It

Kubas Consultants, which I regard as one of the potential saviors of the newspaper business, published a report that used to be free online but now is by pay (CORRECTION: It's not posted online anymore, but it's still free if you order it by e-mail, sorry); here's a link to where you can order the report, called "The Next Newspaper Sales Model." One of its major points was that one of the way Google has prospered is by not demanding that ads be placed through a representative. Indeed, almost all of its business is simply Web-page driven.

Newspapers, the report noted, have made display advertisers go through a sales representative, who hauls out a rate card -- lovingly prepared by the in-house graphics person, but with no possible interactivity -- pulls out a calculator, writes some stuff down on paper and says, "Now here's what I can do for you." It's a salesman-driven model that still works perfectly well in some areas, but increasingly clients either 1) want to simply place the ad directly at a time of their choice or 2) want the rate-card data presented as an Excel file so they can draw their own conclusions. For classified, you often have to go through the Phone Room, dictating the ad to an Ad-Viser who set it up in the system. Of the three papers I get at home daily, all offer the option of going to a Web site to place the ad, but their top-of-the-section setup ad makes clear that the phone is still the preferred method.

Except today, an interesting thing happened in the Burlington County Times. The back page of classified was devoted to a full-page house ad showing how to place your classified ad online, without benefit of human intervention. (Go here, click on map, create account, select classification, place ad.) Perhaps to support this effort, the BCT made a special ad push. Whatever the situation, today's BCT classified, at least in terms of Help Wanted, looked like we were back in the good old days. Classified display for nurses, cashiers, even a chief of police. And liner ads for many different types of jobs. Column after column. Nearly five pages of classified help wanted in a paper that has been strugging to fill three pages with classified in total.

Maybe they were giving them away. But part of the falloff of readership has been that we no longer offer job ads in any profusion. People don't buy papers just for the journalism. Newspapers will never again get column after column of national ads for aerospace engineers running in the top 50 metros. But they can get jobs for local ads drawing from a local readership that is just looking for a job in a specific area, not looking for advancement in a national hiring market.

In line with which, Steve Outing, who in addition to yelling about stopping the presses devotes a lot of time to the issue of classifieds, noted two recent changes, in Baltimore and St. Petersburg, aimed at eliminating the classified ghetto. Among them is moving to a six-column classified format and publishing the classifieds near actual content, not just "friendly" material as has been done with auto ads for years. Outing notes that St. Pete ran its classifieds near:

"- Staff reporter piece about a resident trying to get back his abducted dog.- Staff piece about an ice cream worker for an ongoing feature, "Working Class Hero."- Daily reader-submitted photo.- "On the Move" feature of business appointments, promotions, etc.- Crossword puzzle and other puzzles.- Comics.- Horoscope.- Movie times listings (and ads from theaters).- Advice and consumer watchdog columns (including Dear Abby).- TV listings grid.- Careers Q&A feature (to accompany recruitment ads).- "On the Bookshelf" feature about home-related books (to accompany real estate ads).- Automotive feature stories (to accompany auto ads)"

Well, you can't get away from the auto features. And newspapers have always backed classifieds up against crosswords or comics. Some 40 years ago would run Dear Abby in with the classifieds. But as Outing notes, there are "reports of readers finding ads to respond to and purchasing things as a result of initially reading through the section only to play a puzzle or read the comics. Yes, newspapers have tried many times to add some content in with the classifieds, such as moving comics into the section. But for that to work, the classifieds themselves must be redesigned to be more useful and easy to scan. Editorial content alone can't do the job."

So yes, part of the reason classifieds fled to the Internet was not just that it was a better medium but that we often did a crappy job of presenting them, one based solely on our own needs. The reason classifieds were a cash cow for newspapers is that we ran them in as little space as possible, with all sorts of arcane abbreviations ("2 rms b/a rv vu S Pgh"), and then charged an arm and a leg for them; but part of the reason we did that was the difficulty of producing masses of classifieds in the hot type era.

One shudders to think of the effort involved in setting line after line of classified on linotypes, setting it all by slug, having a makeup person take all the slugs for category 203 and put them in order, filling out the holes at the end of columns, having a person whose job was to monitor that the slug ran for the right number of days and then was thrown in the hellbox -- and from day to day you would not know exactly how much space, with obits and lost cats, this all would take up. Left to its own devices, with legal ads, it could eat up the entire paper. Because classifieds were a world of their own, the paper typically left them to their own devices, such as the different column widths; most papers even had separate styles of folio lines for classified sections, for no particular reason except that the classified manager had the power to do it. And then there were the elaborate rules to prevent cross-departmental poaching by classified and display. The Baltimore Sun was once famous for where you could not run logos in classified liner ads; if you wanted your company name spelled out in big type, you had to have it set in parallel rows of characters like O's in body type. If it was a logo, it was Display and thus it was someone else's commission.

And thus classifieds developed into the jammed together, nearly unreadable, chaotic mix they were when the Internet came along and said, hey, this can be done easier, faster, more readably and cheaper.

Which it can. Classified will never be what it was, but maybe it still has a second life -- if we stop treating it as the unreadable junk in the back of the paper and treat it as content that if we presented it in a way people might actually want to read it, maybe they would. This would work a lot better for newspapers if they admitted that it was all just advertising.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Kubas Consultants article is free, no payment required.