February 1, 2010
It’s not news that the newspaper industry’s business woes have been led by a precipitous decline in print classified advertising. Toting up the figures while drafting the upcoming State of the News Media report last week, I found the overall decline in a decade was a stunning 70 percent — from $19.6 billion in 2000 to roughly $6 billion in 2009.
Some of the detail inside that number, however, is intriguing and, dare I say, a bit encouraging. Take a look:

Source: Newspaper Association of America (2009 includes Q1–Q3 data and an estimate for Q4)

Note that recruitment advertising in 2009 was a tenth of what it had been in the booming economy of 2000. In fact, it fell by nearly two-thirds in a single year, from 2008 to 2009. Unless a double-dip recession materializes or this proves to be a true jobless recovery, I expect some of that advertising to come back later in 2010 and through 2011.

The two other main categories of classified — automotive and real estate — show predictably high rates of decline as well, 74 percent and 56 percent respectively.

But look at “other.” It is nearly equal to what it was in 2000. And it has gone from the smallest of the four categories to the largest, by far. “Everything else has shrunk while it has stayed steady,” Mort Goldstrom, vice president of revenue development at the Newspaper Association of America, told me.

Paid obituaries, which are included in that category, are a big reason for the comparative health of this type of classified advertising. They’re nearly universal now, but they weren’t back in 2000. So are other kinds of paid announcements like births and weddings, Goldstrom said. And garage sales, legal notices and pets are all doing well.
Checking the January 28 edition of my hometown St. Petersburg Times, I found that “other” indeed was a prominent component of the 16-page “BayLink” section. (The Times’ restyled classifieds section includes comics and various syndicated features.) Some of these listings are free, but among the categories were:
  • Antiques and collectibles, 3 columns
  • Miscellaneous articles, 2 columns
  • Computer and electronics, 1 column
  • Service directory, 4 columns
  • Furniture, 2 columns
  • Sporting goods, 1.5 columns
  • Pets, 4 columns
  • Boats, 1.5 columns

Compare that to just five columns for jobs listings (though autos filled a robust four pages).

We all know that digital competitors — Monster.com, Craigslist, Google Search and various auto and real estate sites — spirited away the lucrative newspaper print classified franchise. Electronic search works well for buyers and sellers, listings can be more expansive than the cramped shorthand of a print classified, and, in Craigslist’s case, zero is an attractive price.
But print classifieds linger for several reasons. Some buyers and sellers are not wild about the cheesy environs of Craigslist, with its reputation for being a marketplace for escorts. A portion of buyers and sellers still prefers print — probably the same people who venture online only for simple functions such as e-mail. And a motivated seller may choose both digital and print for the broadest exposure.
Gannett’s fourth quarter earnings, released Monday, showed that the company has nearly halved the rate of classified decline year-to-year compared to the third quarter. I have heard anecdotally that December classified revenues were up at some papers compared to a year ago (though those December 2008 results were nothing to cheer about).
Some analysts have posited that print classifieds could go to zero within a few years. I don’t expect them to come roaring back anywhere close to good-old-days levels, but I think they have a pretty good life expectancy as a secondary channel for selling stuff.
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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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