Newspapers and Classifieds: They can still be a team in the online age

The newspaper industry has certainly fallen on tough times in recent years and it’s sad, in a nostalgic sort of way, to see the old print edition slowly head out to pasture. It had a good run, though, surviving the arrivals of radio, television and around-the-clock cable news before the Internet hit the scene. We now know what a game-changer the Internet was. But despite the warning signs, newspaper executives were caught off-guard by it, blinded by the resiliency of the industry to survive the earlier game-changing forces and convinced that their business model was immune to the power of the Internet.

Since the beginning, newspapers have made their money from advertising, using the eyeballs of their daily readers to sell pieces of the newsprint page to advertisers eager to showcase their products and services to the folks living in the area. That’s been the basic model for generations and, for quite some time, it proved to be a quite lucrative model. But it wasn’t just those big fancy full-page ads featuring the latest cars or fashions that brought the big bucks for newspapers. The classifieds – those daily agate-typed two-liner listings that advertised things like missing cats, apartments for rent and used cars – were also a newspaper cash cow.

Geebo, of course, is in the online classifieds business. And a decade ago, when Geebo was just getting started, I pitched what I thought was a slam-dunk of a deal to the Sacramento Bee, the local newspaper where the company was founded. The idea was to upsell classifieds customers – notably employers providing job listings – by including it in both the newspaper’s print edition and also on Geebo, with a 50-50 revenue split. Initially, the executives at the newspaper were excited about the deal but the decision-makers at the top killed the deal. They didn’t understand why the online listings were important. The Internet, after all, was just a fad.

Fast forward to today and we know how this story has evolved – and just how wrong those newspaper executives were about the Internet. Granted, not every newspaper is struggling in the online landscape. Some have built quite the online presence – albeit a bit late to the game – to showcase their content. And some are bringing in ad revenue by way of those Web pages. But it’s certainly a lot more crowded in that media landscape today than it was 10 years ago. The so-called “citizen journalist” has been empowered by blogging tools, Facebook posts and Twitter, as well as mobile apps and instant digital photography. Readers today have an overwhelming number of choices when it comes to a news provider.

But let’s not throw in the towel on newspaper companies just yet. The truth is that many of them, especially in medium- or mid-sized markets, still have a lot of life left in their brands, their reputations and their reach.

Consider this: Newspapers have long been regional news outlets because they had a limited geographical reach, a physical boundary that they held to because of the costs involved with the daily delivery of the product. As regional sources of news, they focused primarily on local headlines but also rounded out the offerings with news stories from the next county, the next state or even the other side of the world – sometimes from wire services, other times from their own correspondents stationed in key cities.

Today, with the power of the Internet, newspaper companies have the opportunity to expand their reach and compete for readers on a global level – just the same as every other newspaper, or blogger, for that matter. And while that potential reach can be enticing and exciting, there’s also no shame in focusing more on re-building that core local audience, the one that not only wants to know if the planning commission approved the new shopping center but also if anyone spotted Fluffy, the neighbor’s cat, anywhere near Main Street and Central Avenue.

All of that, of course, brings me back to the classifieds. Here at Geebo, we understand the significance of a global audience. We, too, are looking for ways to expand regional listings to broader audiences. Last month, we announced a partnership with WeGoLook, a company that performs on-site inspections of items – largely big-ticket items like cars or boats – for prospective buyers, regardless of where the product is located.

We still believe in the power of local and continue to welcome partnerships with newspapers to both localize and globalize their classifieds listings. A site like Geebo already has partnerships with some of the niche sites that newspapers are turning to for specialized listings, such as cars and homes, but can offer them a greater variety of listings because we haven’t limited ourselves to just one partner for car listings or job listings, for example.

Certainly, classified ads are only one part of the newspaper’s other potential sources of greater revenue. Advertising in the Internet age may be different, but it’s still lucrative – just ask Google. Today, newspapers who target a regional area may not score the big display ad from the national retailer, but it is possible that the local car dealership or grocery store might be interested in reaching that targeted regional audience that’s checking in regularly to keep up with the headlines from their neighborhoods.

In some ways, things haven’t changed at all.