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From DESIGN, Summer 1998

Classified advertising – it's going away and taking newsrooms with it

Brass Tacks Design

Admit it: You don't give a damn about classified ads.

Sure, they might come in handy when you're in the market for a car, or an apartment, or trying to sell old furniture. But beyond that, they're just the poor, bite-size cousins of the big-money ads - and it's not as if you give two thoughts to the display ads beyond the evil they do to page design.

But you're in for some changes. Because not long from now, those ugly little ads are going to vanish, and with them will go 35 cents of every dollar in ad revenue your newspaper makes.

And with the cash will go the news hole. And with the news hole will go pages to design, and money to pay designers like you.

And then, sport, you'll be turning to the classifieds to find a job.

Yes, the classifieds are outbound, and they're going to take some news pages and newsroom positions with them.

They'll be making as much money as ever, and perhaps more; it's just that they won't necessarily be making it for your bosses, who've relied on classifieds to pay the bills for decades.

That's because classifieds are headed for the Web, where any number of competitors have a shot at the cash. It's a brave new electronic world, one in which all the old rules for advertising success are meaningless but two:

1. The fittest survive; and

2. "Fittest," as cited in (1), should be defined broadly, so as to include acne-scarred castoffs with Twizzler biceps and vile breath and rotten social skills, but possessed of low overhead and simple, speedy product distribution.

Savvy newspapers must come up with ways to capture the classified revenue on the Web that they're no longer getting in their print operations. Savvy designers, meanwhile, must find a way to cash in, or face a buyout.

Now, I know what you're thinking.

"But Alan," you're saying, "who was that fellow we heard speak at API 18 months ago, and who told us not to worry about the impact of the Internet on newspapers? Who was it who assured us that online classifieds wouldn't work without universal access?

"Oh, wait - wasn't that you, Alan?" Yes. Yes, that was me. And I'll tell you why I said that, why the coming classified war seemed hardly a skirmish.

I cited lack of access. Less than a third of households had computers. Fewer still had Internet access. To be effective, classifieds have to reach both the haves and the have-nots. A no-brainer.

I mentioned technical difficulties. Each computer/modem/Internet service provider had personal idiosyncracies that made it a chore to get online. Can you translate AT&F1W2S95D? Would you admit it if you could? Exactly.

I pointed to diminishing performance. The flow of Internet customers was increasing by leaps, while the diameter of the pipe remained fixed. A clog seemed inevitable.

I noted that technical standards for the Internet and web browsers were changing all the time, making a dog's breakfast of content and reliability.

And, not the least, I decried the Internet's lack of portability. Without expensive laser printers, Web users couldn't take their online classifieds with them when beating the pavement for a job, a car, a place to live. And that, I figured, made them close to worthless.

OK. I was wrong. But hell, Alvin Toffler couldn't have predicted what happened over the ensuing months.

Two-thirds of households now have home computers - the same percentage that receive daily newspapers. Uh-oh.

And that percentage is bound to grow, what with the falling price of the hardware. Last Christmas, you could buy a computer and monitor for $900. This Christmas, knock a hundred bucks off that.

On the technical front, more bad news: Competition-minded computer resellers will preconfigure your computer before you're out of the store, making plug and play internet access a reality. And each new generation of Windows makes the PC easier to use.

But wait. There's more. Performance isn't a problem, because classifieds don't require bandwidth-choking graphics. Standards aren't the sticking point I foresaw, either, because classifieds need only the most rudimentary HTML formatting. Finally, new laster-quality ink jet printers deliver great quality for next to nothing. You can now take online classifieds with you. And the Web offers assets that print can't match. You can post and download ads hours before the newspaper's delivered. Type in a key word, and the online engine takes you to the category you want without getting ink on your fingers. The bottom line, my friends, bites. Newspapers are no longer the only game in town for classified ads. Even newspapers that carry classifieds in their online editions aren't safe from the feeding frenzy ahead. Some papers will do battle with Microsoft, cable TV, the phone company, whomever is muscling into their classified rackets. Before long, they'll get to feeling like bloated mastadons encircled by sabre-toothed cats. Blood will spill. Writhing will commence. Life will suck.

Other papers will ally with the competition, in a Vichy arrangement that may preserve some classified revenues, but will give away a good chunk of them, as well.

Either way, your newspaper's classified revenues will do a header down the stairs.

So here's what you do: Forget about editorial content online.

I'll say that again: Forget about editorial content online.

That's right, forget about the stories and the pretty pictures and the other Website offerings that bring you joy.

Why? Because they don't make a dime. Why should you care? Because it's only a matter of time before your boss gets over the novelty of having an online paper and starts thinking, "That frilly-shirted artiste is costing me a pile of scratch, and he's a pain-in-the-ass prima donna to boot, and I'm only getting a 16-percent return from this rag because of people like him." Which is not, of course, what you want your boss thinking. You want him thinking, rather: "Profits are up, up, up! And it's thanks, in large measure, to that ingenius and talented young man over there. Why, I believe I'll lavish upon him a substantial holiday bonus!" The surest route to good relations with the brass is making the suits a pile of money, and you, Mr. or Ms. Designer, can help do that by shifting your attention to online classifieds.

You can make Web classifieds better in the same way you've improved content - with better organization, some thought to presentation. You can probably make more of an impact on electronic ads, in fact, than any other newsroom player. And, having done so, you'll be rightfully seen as essential to the continuous good health and improvement of the whole operation.

Some of you may balk at such a notion, being too evolved to dirty yourselves with advertising. Before you write it off, though, ask to see your paper's market research. Pay particular mind to the reasons people cite for reading the thing. I'll bet most of them are as likely to mention local advertising as local news.

We need to start looking at papers the way readers do - not as news or advertising, but as information. Designers can play a giant role in improving the information-gathering experience, and with the same Mac keystrokes, preserve their own place in the food chain.

Don't buy it? Well, my track record as a prognosticator is so-so, I have to admit.

But that starving artist stuff?

Way overrated.

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