Craigslist is Newspapers’ Silent Killer

By  |  Monday, May 25, 2009 at 7:01 pm

craigslistpeaceWith all of the newspaper industry’s huffing and puffing over Google and other news aggregators, you’d hardly suspect that print journalism has another major problem on its hands.

New research (PDF) from the Pew Internet and American Life Project solidifies what I’ve been hearing for a long time: It’s the classifieds, silly.

Over the last four years, use of online classified services such as Craigslist has more than doubled, Pew’s research found. Almost half of Internet users go online for classifieds now, compared to 22 percent in 2005. Every day, 9 percent of Internet users hit up Craigslist and other online classifieds, compared to four percent in 2005.

The cost to newspapers is immense. After reaching peak revenues of $19.5 billion in 2000, classifieds in American newspapers pulled in less than $10 billion last year. In other words, newspapers have lost half their classified revenue in the last eight years, while online classified use has doubled in half that time.

This begs the question of whether there’s any way for newspapers to stop the bleeding. Last month, I read a stirring essay by Jeff Jarvis about how the industry blew its chance to become a major player in the Internet age. Even if newspaper companies could somehow find a way to keep practicing journalism — Jarvis argues that it’s too late for that, even — I’m not sure the same could be said for classifieds. What could a newspaper offer that Craigslist cannot?

Missing from Pew’s research is any explanation for why online classifieds seem to be cannibalizing newspapers’ business, but it’s got to be that deadly mixture of (mostly) free and immediate. Want to get rid of that dresser today? No need to wait for tomorrow’s paper, and no one else will ask for a cut of the sales. Maybe hyperlocal papers could offer robust classifieds in markets too small for Craigslist to cover, but for cities, the opportunity was lost years ago.


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7 Comments For This Post

  1. Ethan Says:

    We have been hearing this for the past couple of years now. Surprisingly, Craigslist remains an almost always free service and has opted out of selling classified ads (save for jobs and real estate in large cities) or even advertising on their very popular website.

    When you can do business for free somewhere, have almost instantaneous listings, and same day replies at Craigslist – why make the move back to newspapers?

  2. Dave Barnes Says:

    My hyperlocal paper (The Washington Park Profile) which is distributed in just a small section of a large city (Denver, CO) is doing quite well with its classifieds.
    None of the ads are for things that need to sell quickly. They are all for services.
    These ads are where I found: electrician, handyman.
    I did sell my car using Craig’s List.

  3. william Says:

    Beyond being free and immediate, the computer/Internet is a far superior platform for classifieds, because of search capabilities and pictures. So you are right, that is one piece of business the newspapers will never get back.

  4. Danny Says:

    I’m not sure where you are getting that this is “silent” or why Pew is just now getting onboard. Newspapers were complaining about craigslist a loooong time ago. He’s even been asked in interviews what it is like to kill the newspaper business. The reason they compalin more about aggregators now is because already lost the classified ad battle.

  5. Jared Newman Says:


    I was being sort of tongue-in-cheek with the headline (I’m generally wary of anything that’s called a silent killer in earnest). As I mention above, the idea that Craigslist is killing newspapers is not new (I heard it a lot in my newspaper days), but you wouldn’t know it from the way newspapers were bashing Google lately. Point taken on the NAA knowing classifieds are already a lost cause. That goes to Jarvis’ larger point of how the industry is just totally screwed in every way. On this we can all agree.

    As for why Pew is covering this now, it seems from the PDF that they’ve been collecting data for a few years, but just now we’re seeing some significant milestones.

  6. Nextnik Says:

    It’s Craigslist as well as a host of other missed opportunities that newspapers could of grasped – but didn’t. It really would be a shame if they all ceased operations. Like them or hate them, we really do need an independent local news outlet like the papers. I really hope they figure out a way. I just uploaded a video commentary on the subject.

  7. pragmatist Says:

    Free is not really the issue – if the newspapers had decent classifieds on line, they could have made a real killing, especially in the early days of Craigslist, when it hadn’t gotten so local yet. People, especially advertisers but even buyers, are willing to pay if they really perceive value. Of course, if you are competing against free, you need to offer something more compelling.

    The problem is that the newspapers never got to the point of parity, or even somewhere in the neighborhood. I visit more than one newspaper site. I have NO idea where the classifieds for most of them are. Why is that? Why would I pay a newspaper to post a classified ad, if I know that no one is going to have any idea how to find the ad?

    There are a lot of ways that newspaper sites could make both their classifieds and content more compelling. They just need start thinking about what their audience really wants. There ARE papers that are managing to do that.

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