Death of the small ad breathes life into online obituaries
NET RESULTS:Once upon a time, the classifieds were surely the most mundane part of a newspaper, those little legal notices in tiny print stuck in the back of the paper ranking alongside the obituaries, which in my childhood memory, were mostly ignored by anyone under 60, but were a source of grim fascination for grandparents and great-aunts and uncles.
Now, it turns out that, for many newspapers, the crisis in print publication is summed up as: “It’s the classifieds, stupid.”
Display advertising is also in crisis, with online revenue on average replacing only a tenth of what has been lost, according to the Pew Research Centre in the United States – figures which would roughly coincide with what has been seen over here.
But it’s the loss of the small ads, the reliable bread-and-butter income for newspapers, which has hit especially hard. In the past, there was nothing else as efficient, with such broad reach, as a newspaper small ad for finding a flat, hunting down a job, selling items, finding a pet or searching out a holiday rental.
According to Pew’s recent report, State of the News Media 2012, since 2000, classified advertising revenue has declined more than any other category, from a peak of about $20 billion annually to $5 billion in 2011.
Recent reports from the UK and Ireland also show small ads continuing to take a bashing, down by as much as 17 per cent in some categories over last year at two big publishing groups, Johnston Press (which publishes 259 papers) and Trinity Mirror Group.
Mortality of the small ad
Within the classified advertising segment, recruitment revenue has declined most drastically since 2000 in the US, dropping from $8.7 billion to under $750 million in 2011. Car advertising revenue is about one-fifth what it was back in 2000, and property is about one-quarter its 2000 value.
What I found most interesting, though, was that Pew said the category labelled “other” – a grab bag that includes obituaries and legal notices – had stayed relatively steady by comparison. That niche was valued at about $2.8 billion in 2000, and is down to about $2.2 billion since, a far more gradual decline.
Eternal death notices
When you think about it though, it makes sense. Death and legal notices shall always be with us. As long as there is a legal requirement to post a notice in print, the legal notice will remain a needed mainstay of print newspaper revenue, small as it may be. And a print obituary remains very important to people. As I know from family experience, having placed one for my father in several newspapers after his death in 2011, seeing a person’s life summarised in print – something you can hold, read, cut out and save, is far more consoling than pixels on a screen.
Perhaps that will change but I would not have wanted Dad to get a send-off only on screen, even if he was an early devotee of the PC and had an email address before almost anyone else I knew.
Print obituaries are not cheap. According to Advertising Age, the fees for running an obituary in a US paper can range from a few hundred dollars for something in a mid-market paper, on up to $1,000 for a big city publication.
But newspapers also are working to create additional digital-based income around obituaries too. As I found, most papers will also run a print obituary for free online – with some leaving it up permanently, and others requiring a payment for it to be left on view.
The online guestbook is also a popular feature, which some papers try to parlay into additional income. While some keep guestbook comments at no charge, others, such as the Chronicle, remove them after a period, unless the bereaved decide they want to pay for a permanent online memorial guestbook.
A family can have the guestbook comments made into a print book, for example. And there are one click services for obituary readers to send flowers or an e-card.
It’s not exactly an innovation anyone wants to be in the position to learn about. But as I read the Pew report and noted the relative stability of the print obituary, I couldn’t help but think about how even in this most traditional and sombre of areas, the search for digital revenue models continues.