Sunday, June 01, 2008

Classifieds agonistes

Bob Wyman has an excellent think piece, "Newspaper Classifieds: A franchise lost."

If you are in journalism, I suggest you read it. The ah-ha moment should come when Wyman talks about classifieds really being a separate business from news, although the two piggybacked on the same medium, the paper, for so many years.

Given that perspective, you may think anew about classifieds.

Wyman says it's time for papers to move on and forget the lost opportunity of classifieds.

I agree in the context of major metros. But here in the hustings, I still don't see mass adoption of free sites like Craiglist. And while some of the verticals, especially real estate, are probably beyond the ability of papers to recover, others, such as jobs, are still unsettled. (I base these observations on conversations I continue to have with people as I go about my business -- nothing scientific about the sampling -- and my own experiences with things such as Craigslist.)

Here's where Wyman's observation comes in handy -- where there are opportunities left, managers have to realize that they are dealing with two separate businesses. Then, maybe you wouldn't get things like this paper's classified listings - unsearchable, unattractive and just dumped online. Compare that with even a scraper service like Jobster or Indeed. Were news organization managers to think about classifieds as separate businesses, they might think harder about combining that scraping technology themselves with their own searchable databases. (Again, keep in mind I am talking about small operations where I think there still is an opening.)

CareerBuilder, of course, has been one attempt by the industry to do this. But it still tends to be a larger-paper buy in.

Having said that, we run up against the digital divide. The fractured nature of this business has always been problematic in fostering R&D. I fear it is becoming even more critical for those smaller newsrooms (> 25,000 circ) daily and weekly, especially those not part of a chain. It's one thing to say there might be an opening and another to have the resources to take advantage of it. For instance, that paper I pointed to has an IT staff of about two that has its hands full just keeping the servers up and meeting internal needs.

Smaller newsrooms are the ground troops of journalism in this country, and while there have been (relatively) rosy predictions about their prospects, things like classifieds, I think, illustrate the difficulties they face in moving to the digital age. (My assumption here, of course, is that their audience eventually moves online as well, even in the most rural areas; I don't think that's unreasonable given the explosion in mobile we are likely to see after TV goes all-digital next year.)

We need a skunkworks for these smaller newsrooms, perhaps to develop low-cost software, but just as much to identify what is available already open source or low-cost and how it can be adapted to their operations.

I've suggested press association digital development cooperatives, but maybe there are other ideas. What do you think?

As an aside, compounding things is the sloppy way parts of this industry continue to maintain their online sites. Time and again, I am met by dead links, outdated material, etc.

For instance, if you go to Google and search for Sumter, S.C., jobs, one of the first pages that comes up is (a pretty innovative data site for a small state - but that's another post). And, indeed, there is a link to the classified site of the local newspaper. But take a close look - scroll down to that "storm water manager" ad. When is that resume due? May 2007!?

What happened, of course, is that the paper changed how it generates page calls. But the old link still works. The page has never been cleaned up or a redirect inserted. That's evidence of the "static" and not the dynamic mentality too many news sites still have.

Then there is The State in nearby Columbia. Click on its classifieds link and you go here:

Where would you click to head to the job ads? (Put another way, you have just clicked through to this page. Where did your eyes land first?)

I'm betting a substantial number would click on the Careerbuilder area on the right. The big orange box on the left might seem attractive, but its position is on the left rail, where some people may discount it as general navigation/internal search. (Having clicked on one left-rail item to get here, they would not necessarily expect to have to click on another. Instead, the tendency would be to scan the main part of the page first, which is consistent with eyetrack and usability studies.)

There's a second link, under that picture next to the orange box. Did you even see it? (Three links to the same thing but with three separate styles on the same page. The usability experts must be going nuts.)

While I think as many as half the visitors to this page would click on that rightmost link, let's make it just a conservative one in five, 20%. What will they get?
That's a way to build traffic, huh? (The problem with door No. 3, Monty, is that the link now should be instead of /employment.)

I've said it before and will again - the Web is a dynamic thing, far more than the traditional newspaper business. Those who want to play effectively in this sandbox, must find systems., staffing and work flows that allow for the constant tending and monitoring that requires. So far, I see far too many examples of post it and forget it. (And maybe it's just me, but if the "404" notice comes up like above, wouldn't it be nice to have a way to tell the Web folks about the broken link? Sigh.)

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