Classifieds ... the good, the bad and increasing sales

Chip Hutcheson

Jan 1, 2023

Service directory ads can supplement your classifieds. Builders, electricians, plumbers — anyone in a service industry — can benefit by having a classified ad in every issue. Price the ads so that frequency is maximized, plus include those on the paper’s website as an added benefit.

In any kind of business or organization, it’s prudent to examine what programs have run their course. The question that has to be dealt with is this — when do you pronounce something dead and replace it with something more profitable?

I regret saying this — but classified ads are on life support. As long as we have public notice advertising to populate classified pages, it would be premature to say classified advertising is dead. But the days when people went to newspapers as the primary resource to buy or sell cars or houses with a classified ad have gone the way of the rotary telephone. No longer do most people place a classified ad when they plan a yard/garage/moving sale. Employment ads — most often those from governmental agencies required to post them in newspapers — still have a breath of life. But those are nowhere near as many as they were in yesteryear.

There’s no question that Craigslist dealt a crippling blow to newspaper classified ads, especially in larger markets. In smaller markets, Facebook has captured much of the market. Realtors and car dealers have developed their own websites and devoted time, money and energies there. Other competitors to newspapers include,, and, not to mention eBay listings and Zillow. We could add to the list, but you get the idea.

The downturn of classified advertising is one of several significant factors resulting in the tight business climate that newspapers now experience. Going back to the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century, our newspaper company counted on classified advertising to account for a third of our revenue. Some papers report that classified ads accounted for 40% of their revenue.

Classified ads were the “pot at the end of the rainbow” for a majority of newspapers. Our 5,000 circulation twice-weekly paper would run four to five classified pages every Wednesday and two or three pages on Saturday. Because classified ads were so profitable, we promoted them heavily and trained our front office personnel on how to best sell a classified ad. The first issue of the month usually had more than a quarter page of yard sale ads. Now that paper rarely has one yard sale ad.

When dealing with a classified ad customer, we’d encourage multiple insertions by giving a price break if the ad ran at least four times. Running 10 times got an even larger discount. We went from six columns to nine columns since our ads were priced according to the number of lines used, not the words. A narrower column meant the ad had more lines, hence more revenue. A display classified was priced 10% higher than the same size ad elsewhere in the paper.

Classified ads were the first place many readers went because they were in search of bargains. We provided a much-needed service, and we bolstered that mindset among our readers by offering free ads if an item being sold cost less than $100, and a free ad was offered to anyone who found a lost item and was searching for the owner.

As classifieds have disappeared, circulation seems to have accompanied that decline.

In Kentucky, our state press association has seen a steep decline in its statewide classified ad network. “Statewides for many years were our bread and butter,” said executive director David Thompson. “Now it’s little more than crumbs. Looking around at papers that used to have three or four pages of classifieds and you’ll find maybe two pages at most.”

That’s the hand that newspapers face, but the light at the end of the tunnel hasn’t been turned off yet.

Keeping public notices is vital. Not only are they essential for our civic democracy, but they do provide content that interests most readers. And for community newspapers, there’s still a need for businesses and industry to post job notices in the classifieds. Before I retired in 2017, we had an industry in our town of just over 6,000 people whose plant manager said that the best response to job openings came from our newspaper. That’s a testimony that is probably typical of small town America, and getting that message to HR folks is sorely needed today.

There are other avenues to recoup some of the revenue lost, although it won’t be a complete fix.

Service directory ads can supplement your classifieds. Builders, electricians, plumbers — anyone in a service industry — can benefit by having a classified ad in every issue. Price the ads so that frequency is maximized, plus include those on the paper’s website as an added benefit.

Look for special opportunities. Every January is a prime time to celebrate the longevity of businesses, industries, schools, churches and even local government offices. We called them “Landmarks,” others use titles such as “Milestones.” Those ads are the size of a business card, listing the date of founding along with the basics such as the entity’s name, address, phone and website. Larger entities can be persuaded to take more than one block. In that slow time after Christmas, Landmarks can be a four-page feature for even a small town. Supplement the ads with some historic photos. The newspaper ad rep can snatch dollars from those entities which rarely, if ever, advertise.

Pub Aux readers can benefit by reading the “Great Ideas” article by Robert Williams in each issue. There you will find creative methods to gain ad dollars. We live in a time where “we’ve always done it this way before” will not work. New ideas are mandatory — not optional — in 2023, as newspapers seek to replace the dollars that have vanished with the decline of classifieds.

Chip Hutcheson is the retired publisher of The Times Leader in Princeton, Kentucky. He was NNA president in 2015. He currently serves as a content strategist for Kentucky Today, the online news website of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.