Reversing the advertising trend: Will newspaper classifieds ever fully recover?

Steve Outing asserts that Craigslist is not the enemy. He says this despite the fact that his new site, Reinventing Classifieds, is focused on reversing trends that Craigslist and its ilk have caused.

“Enemy? No, I wouldn’t use that word,” Outing said in a phone interview today. “If Craig [Newmark] wouldn’t have come along with this idea then someone else would have. The nature of what the internet makes possible meant that all this was going to happen no matter what. Newspapers just need to adapt to a new reality and it’s as simple as that.”

Regardless of how you frame the free classifieds site’s relationship to newspapers, its effects on revenue cannot be ignored. According to the Newspaper Association of America, newspaper classified buys declined by 16.5% between 2006 and 2007 — a drop of nearly $3 billion. Scarcely a publisher exists who can say the word “Craigslist” without the underlying tone of doom and contempt.

Outing, for his part, is not sitting idly by to watch. The web guru wrote for a number of newspapers until the early ’90s and later left to cover new media and consult with various companies about the intersection of the internet and journalism. He’s been writing a column on the subject for Editor and Publisher for years.

A web startup Outing had been working on hadn’t quite panned out, and as it was closing shop last year he began doing consulting work with Christopher Ryan, the creator of Future of News, a site that allows advertisers to place ads in newspapers without human interaction. “[Chris] has this idea that he’s working on…The product is going to be called Ad Everywhere,” Outing said. “It’s going to be a distributed web strategy for getting back classified revenues…We came up with this idea to do a separate site that was not part of that effort that would be a venue or a clearing house to help folks think through this issue. Both of us feel strongly that the traditional model doesn’t work and we really need to come up with something totally different and nobody seems to have done it. Newspapers continue to bleed staff. Things are not pretty right now. Both of us came out of the newspaper industry and we feel strongly that there’s still a lot of value in saving that kind of journalism.”

reinventing classifieds

Reinventing Classifieds, the result of these discussions, will combine case studies, solicited media columns, and the mining of crowd wisdom to live up to its name. Outing has already released an online survey that tries to pinpoint innovative methods that individual publishers are using to reverse the dire trends. “We’ll probably devote a lot of the site to highlighting success stories that various businesses have had,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll certainly come out with some kind of written documented solution that publishers can adopt on their own.”

Behind the scenes of all this is Christopher Ryan’s new advertising platform he’ll be working on in the coming months. Outing explained that Reinventing Classifieds wasn’t necessarily created as a marketing tool for the new platform, but rather the site is more of a separate semi-altruistic endeavor to save a threatened form of media. “I think [Chris] has a pretty clear vision of what he wants and I’m kind of adding my two cents as an outside consultant,” he said. “Regardless of the information that comes through the site he has an idea of what he wants. But I think what happens on the site will influence him as he develops it. It’s a great way to come up with a solution or platform that meets a lot of the needs for potential customers.”

But does Outing really believe that he can not only stop the bleeding advertising dollars but also reverse the trend?

“Yeah I do because I think newspapers still have huge brand recognition within local communities,” he said. “And I definitely do not feel like it’s lost yet. But without doing something radical sometime soon, the industry doesn’t have much hope.”

And proving that it’s not only politics that makes strange bedfellows, Outing has lined up a rather interesting guest writer who will pen a post for the site within the next few weeks: Jim Buckmaster, CEO of Craigslist.