Something to Worry About for Alternative Papers: Classifieds

By: Steve Outing

A hot topic at the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, held last week in Salt Lake City, Utah, was the impact of the Internet on member papers' print classifieds sections and personal ads business. Alternative newspapers stand to be hurt badly if cyberspace-only classifieds ventures succeed and begin taking away some of their traditional customers.

I attended an interesting session on classifieds, where representatives from newspapers that are taking a pro-active stance and creating new online classifieds revenue streams offered tips and advice.

Julia Loftis of the San Francisco Bay Guardian reported that classifieds from the Bay Area's largest alternative weekly have been on the Web for only a week, as part of a new experiment. Ads that run in the paper also run on the Web for no additional charge, and Loftis doesn't expect that to change; the paper rather has opted for a display ad revenue model.

Loftis doesn't believe that the Guardian can afford to charge a fee for running classifieds online, primarily because of competition from San Francisco's big dailies, the Chronicle and Examiner, which give classifieds advertisers exposure on their Web service, The Gate. If they're already on the Web with the dailies, most advertisers won't pay the Guardian extra for online exposure, goes the reasoning. Thus online classifieds on the site are a strict value-added that in theory should improve the print classifieds bottom line.

Online classifieds revenue will come from selling banner advertising to be placed on the classifieds pages within the Guardian Web site. Loftis says there will be no ad on the main classifieds entry page, but subsequent pages will have appropriately targeted banner advertising. There will be banners at the top of the search form and results pages, for instance, as well as on the various section pages (Jobs, Roommates Wanted, Rentals, Personals, etc.).

Loftis says the Guardian has not yet joined a national classifieds network, but is eager to do so.

Online personals: The switch is on

Dan Hardick calls himself the "LUV doctor" of the Austin Chronicle, which means that he has responsibility for the paper's personals business. Since putting the personals online, Hardick says that an increasing number of ads are being placed either by email or Web form. Of the approximately 120 new relationship ads placed in the Chronicle each week, 40 to 45 typically are now submitted by computer.

Having the ads online has increased the number of personal ads submitted overall, he says, probably because of the ease with which an ad can be placed while online. Incoming relationship ads come in by Web form submission or email in about a 50/50 split, Hardick says.

Placing a relationship ad is free for those submitting it using the newspaper's Web form, but can cost a nominal amount if submitted through other channels. But Hardick also runs frequent promotions that allow free submission of ads, such as "Fax Wednesday" and "Email Monday"; ads placed on those days are exempted from the usual charges for the first few words of a relationship ad and pay only for running longer ads. (About 60% of personal ads placed in the Chronicle are free to the advertiser.)

The Chronicle earns most of its personals revenue from 900 number calls made by readers responding to ads. (The paper uses a system from vendor The Tele-Publishing Group of Boston, Massachusetts, which owns most of the alternative newsweeklies industry personals business.) Hardick says that revenue for ads placed online instead of to the paper is still very low -- about 2% of the total personals business for the paper. And only a tiny fraction of 900 number revenues is directly attributable to online ads, though it is growing.

Those placing ads online have generally the same gender split as those placing print ads, Hardick says, though they do tend to be younger. And people who are looking for "alternative" relationships (S&M, multiple partners, etc.) tend to gravitate to online personals rather than print, he says, probably because the medium can offer more privacy than traditional printed personal ads.

The switch to email personals

At the Williamette Week in Oregon, personals and new ventures coordinator Carol Khan says she's instituted an email component to the paper's personals service, allowing those responding to an ad to communicate with the advertiser via anonymous email. Respondents purchase a package of email passes, which allows them to send messages to those who placed an ad and indicated that they have an email address. The advertiser's email address is disguised to ensure privacy, but he/she will see the real email address of those who reply to the ad.

Purchasing the email passes is currently done by calling on the phone and giving a credit card number, but Khan hopes to add online transactions capability soon. Likewise, the classifieds site lacks a search engine but that too is coming soon. In the interim, online ads from the various sections are displayed on Web pages that present only four ads at a time, requiring the user to click on a "next page" arrow for more.

Khan, noting that many alternative papers offer online classifieds as a value-added to the print product, suggested that someday in the relationship ads business, the tables may turn. Perhaps for personal ads, online will be sold first and foremost and print publication of the ads will be the value-added component.

The competition

Steve McMahon of SunType Publishing Solutions warned conference attendees of the competition they face from cyberspace publishers figuring out ways to make money with classifieds on the Web despite having no print counterpart. "They want to take away some of your business," he says.

He urges print publishers to use the latest available technology in order to compete with the likes of online employment, real estate and personals classifieds entrepreneurs. Too many newspaper sites don't even have a search engine; don't just broadcast your ads on the Web, he says, but take advantage of the interactivity made possible in the online medium.

An important feature to add to any classifieds site is a "shopping cart" which allows users to select and save for later use ads which they find interesting. Let the user click on a check box to mark interesting ads, which then can be printed out or saved as a separate results page. This is the cyberspace equivalent of perusing rows and rows of print classifieds and circling several ads to act on later.

For a newspaper site that does classifieds better than most, McMahon suggests looking at the San Jose Mercury News' Mercury Center Web classifieds section. (Mercury Center also won an award last February from Editor & Publisher Interactive for best online classifieds section for large-circulation newspapers.)

The Internet: Reporters' gold mine

Rhodes University (South Africa) journalism professor Guy Berger recently gave a presentation to the World Editors Forum (FIEJ) in Washington, D.C., offering a wealth of tips for journalists using the Internet as a reporting tool. His paper is available on the World Wide Web at

Steve Previous day's column | Next day's column | Archive of columns
Presented 3 days a week by Steve Outing, Planetary News LLC.
Made possible by Editor & Publisher magazine.
Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the newspaper new media business, please send me a note.

This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here