Friday, April 12, 2013
The Classified Ads: A Remembrance
If the community newspaper of bygone days could be viewed as an economic engine, its premium-grade fuel was the classified ads. Display advertising fluctuated by the season and with the economy, and subscriptions barely covered the cost of the ink and paper. But classified ads were there day in and day out, a steady stream of dollars that certainly contributed significantly to many of my past paychecks.
It was a stream of revenue that was almost untouched by economic hard times; after all that was when people might think of selling the second car or the couch sitting in the garage. And they were the people’s ads, affordable to all. The Glendale Independent, a twice-weekly local paper where I grew up used to advertise that it would print three lines three times for $1.09. Five of those ads provided my paycheck for covering a high school football game and left the paper with 45 cents profit.
They were also the subject of jokes. In Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, Rosalind Russell tells Cary Grant, “So he took the gun and shot him in the classified ads.” You probably get the drift.
Invincible, But Vanquished
Classified advertising was the one thing that people in the newspaper business always figured that television and radio could never take from us. We were right about TV and radio, but there was this thing called the Internet that we never saw coming.
(For the record, I also figured the weekly grocery ads would never go away, and I was wrong about that, as well. But that had to do with the decline of the full-time housewife, who had the time to comparison-shop those ads.)
The deal that the Internet has given to newspapers is about as one-sided as the deal the robber barons gave their factory workers before unions came along. The newspapers bear the cost of hiring people to gather, write and edit the news, then the Internet puts it out for nothing and uses it to attract customers and sell advertising. But the unkindest cut of all was when Craig’s List and similar websites did what TV and radio couldn’t — undercut and destroy the classified ad section. This morning’s local paper had a scant quarter-page of classifieds; 20 years ago it was six pages, minimum.
When the Unimaginable Happened
Technological advance is notoriously unkind to the status quo, and classified ads are now as obsolete as a buggy-whip factory. Posting an ad online has so many advantages over print: It costs nothing, reaches a wider audience, and when the item in question is sold, the ad can be taken down right away, rather than showing up in the paper the next couple of days and generating numerous annoying phone calls.
Two years ago, when my son Nick decided to leave college and work for a while, we used Craig’s List to find a cheap car from him. It eventually led us to Raul in Fremont, who had a nice little 1990 Ford Ranger he was willing to part with for my roll of $100 bills. It has served Nick (and us, since we’ve used the truck for some hauling) very well.
Early next month Nick will be going into the Army, and we’ll be putting the truck up for sale again. My inner newspaperman would like to shell out the $1.09 (or whatever it is now) to run an ad in the paper, but the businessman in me knows we’ll be advertising on Craig’s list instead because that’s where we have the best chance of making a quick sale. Sorry, newspapers. Nothing personal; it’s just business.