Wrapup on papers, Craigslist, etc

Thanks for numerous responses to yesterday's message from my Google friend about how newspapers could, and presumably still might, take advantage of the shift to web-based advertising. Short version: the need to have the business (as opposed to purely journalistic) swagger of predecessors like William Randolph Hearst:

Hearst, were he living as a 'Rupert Murdoch' of today, would own Craigslist by now, would have an industrywide micropayment system, would have recruited legions of readers as hyper-local bloggers, and otherwise employed the tools and resources of our day to advance his cause just as he brought cartoons, drawings, and later photographs and color to his readers in his.

This is a very thoroughly discussed issue, so only a few reactions -- then back to queued-up reactions on Chinese education!

First, from a reader in Australia, about what brought on the crash and a hoped-for solution:

My wife owns a boutique real estate agency in Sydney, Australia.  Every Thursday she'd have to submit the ads for her properties to the Sydney Morning Herald who had a monopoly on real estate advertising -- pre internet.  The likelihood of the desired ad appearing in print, in the desired location, on the desired day was about 60%.  (Imagine her customers looking through the ads for their house and not finding it!) The service was arrogant as well as unreliable and my wife wouldn't mind seeing the SMH go up in flames.  On the news side, the SMH is now about splashing electronic ads right in the middle of a story I might be reading: equally arrogant! This feels very much like a fat monopoly that will be overtaken by something better.

I used to be a print subscriber to the SMH; when their internet site caught up and I upgraded to a decent LCD monitor, it was easier to read online without having to consume and recycle a broadsheet containing 90% unconsumed waste.  I am a news junkie and I seriously worry about losing access to good journalism.  However, I am willing to pay a few cents per story per day and I am sure that somehow, someday, someone will find a way to aggregate my pennies with everyone else's to give good journalists a good living.

After the jump, another reader's suggestion of a potential opportunity. It begins:

It seems to me there is a huge advertising hole that newspapers could fill when they are ready to move past the blame game and start thinking more creatively.
Until the past five to ten years I always subscribed to my local newspaper in order to keep up on local affairs - things that affect me and issues of local politics that might affect how I vote in the local elections.  I no longer subscribe, but I do have two local papers' RSS feeds in my reader.  Strangely enough, the one thing that I've realized I kind of miss is the local advertising.  You ,when I read the paper versions I would flip past most of the ads, but occasionally something would catch my eye that might result in a trip to that store.

Before I wrote this email to you, I decided to take a more careful look at the particular newspaper sites I get the feeds from and confirmed what I suspected.  There is essentially no such advertising to be found there.  What little there is is not local at all.  There is a shopping mall just a few miles from my home, and I suppose if I went there the majority of the 150 or so stores there would be have signs in their windows touting some kind of sale or promotion.  Sure a lot of them are national chains, but it's hard to believe they can rely only on national advertising to generate foot traffic.  These are the kind of stores that filled the papers on Sundays and throughout the week with display advertising.  I suppose they still do, but with readership shrinking as it is, surely more and more of us are being missed.

As an example, I specifically remember clicking on one of the RSS feed articles last week because it concerned my little suburban town.  (The edition I follow covers the whole county.)  Surely there is, or could easily be a mechanism to to associate local advertising with such an article.  Now it may well be that an article like that one doesn't generate a lot of hits.  So then how hard would it be to tie the fee to the advertiser to the actual number of hits?  Let me throw out a wild guess here and say that newspapers, who are used to charging advertisers hundred of dollars to run an eighth page display ad one time, are loathe to consider an alternative that may only generate a fraction of that at first.  Then let me throw out a prediction.  If local newspapers don't figure out a way to fill the gap, someone else will.  If I were as ambitious and creative as Craig Newmark I would be working on it myself!

Finally, a response to the Google item in this comment by Dave Hendricks at Buzz Machine, arguing that sooner or later the publishing world has to move past the current mass experiment of giving away its products for free. Heart of his case:

At some point papers are going to have to turn the digital dimes into at least digital quarters or fifty cent pieces. They won't be able to do that if their content is ubiquitous and available off their site for free. If their content is aggregated (or worse, fetched and repurposed) they will never be able to use better targeting on their own sites to present better ads. They won't even know who is reading their news. They can shape their experience, and even be helpful for shopping (not just brand awareness) if they know who is reading them....

In the great words of SNL's 'Hans and Frans', hear me now, believe me later there will be some form of micropayment, if not outright subscription in the next two years. Without the classifieds to fund the papers, they will have to do this or shut down. Simple economic fact.