In a comment on my last post about “verification communities”, my good friend and very wise former journalist with 18 years of experience in the newspaper biz Doreen Marchionni mentioned a new strategy for online newspaper advertising that I wanted to take a moment to highlight because I think it makes some very interesting food for thought.
As Doreen noted, the Lawrence Journal-World has created a “marketplace” section for local businesses that gives everybody a free listing. Check it out. It’s a simple and clean site design and it seems at a glance to be well-organized. You can pay to upgrade your ad. In many ways, this is an Internet-era strategy — think about how Google has made much of its cash — but as another fellow doc student Mike Martinez pointed out, it’s also quite old — the same basic idea behind supermarket shoppers you pick up for free at the grocery store, and, I suppose, your simple phone book. To me, it seems pretty obvious that linking the newspaper’s credibility and connection to the community with a service like this that mimics some of the participatory environment of the extremely successful and newspaper classifieds-eating Craigslist is fairly genius. Let’s just hope that newspapers are not reluctant to follow this model because it comes from a small — albeit well-known as an innovator — newspaper. Doreen and I have seen that attitude before in our research.
Another idea I would pair with this was mentioned once at a seminar of some type (I can’t recall) by Missouri Journalism School professor Marty Steffens. She suggested thinking creatively about how to help local businesses and secure their ad dollars by finding ways for them to connect with busy people online. What if you could order a meal, or purchase several items at the hardware store, with just a click of the mouse, and just stop on by to pick it up on your way home from work? Sure, you can already do this with Pizza Hut and other chains (sometimes), but this service would be especially designed for local business as well. It seems like a newspaper Website would be ideally suited for helping to direct people to this service. While we’ve all heard a lot about “hyperlocal” journalism, I haven’t heard this term applied as often to the business side of operations.
I spoke with a top business-side executive at a metropolitan daily newspaper recently and he told me that in the past, his staff did little more than simply answer the phones and take orders. Seriously. That was it. At this paper, which has long commanded a high penetration rate, it was a remarkably easy business to be in. Small local businesses didn’t even bother to call as they knew they couldn’t afford ad space anyway.
It’s belaboring the obvious to say that times have changed, leaving this newspaper’s ad staff lacking the skills or perhaps more importantly, the mindset, to deal with a world in which those ad dollars have to be fought for. Small local businesses must now be approached and convinced that they can now afford to place an ad, if not in print, then possibly online. Volume has to make up for some of the big checks once written by the department stores of old. Let’s hope we can figure this one out.