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Classified information about the future.

Newspapers live and die by their classifieds, and so it is no surprise that publishers fear the franchise is at risk when it comes to electronic information services.

The thinking goes that the differences between a newspaper's classifieds and the yellow pages will evaporate once the information appears in some kind of form on line. Once the world goes electronic, according to conventionall wisdom, all that classified-directory information will start to look the same, and so newspapers had better do everything in their power to keep directory publishers and other pretenders at bay.

That is the gospel, but the evidence in the marketplace tells another tale. Newspapers, it turns out, have a natural advantage in electronic information services that will be difficult for any pretender to overcome. Newspapers as far-flung as the Miami Herald and the Sacramento Bee have found that voice personals and/or voice classifieds can be an important adjunct to their classified franchise. Directory publishers, on the other hand, have struggled to make a business out of front-of-the-book (FOB) voice information services, or back-of-the-book (BOB) audiotex sections supplied and updated by the advertisers themselves.

It turns out that classifieds and yellow pages have much less in common than the pundits would have you think, and it turns out that maybe newspapers should be worried about a threat of a different color.

Most of the newspaper's inherent advantages in the marketplace come from daily publication and a sales force geared to generate and process orders in the here-andnow, rather than once a year. Directory publishers, to their dismay, are trapped by their own history and a sales force that considers a yellow pages' sale to be an annual event. Newspapers have the advantage of daily promotion of their audiotex services, and that goes for both editorial and advertising.

There is growing evidence that the audience for voice information services has to be constantly reminded that these audiotex products exist, and the newspaper is a constant, daily reminder. The best barometer for success in voice information services is the willingness of the provider to promote tirelessly what can be found once the consumer picks up the phone.

If anything, the electronic environment magnifies the differences between newspapers and directory publishers, and it is the yellow pages people who have to wonder about what they see in the mirror, but there is a glitch that comes with a newspaper's presumed timeliness and ubiquity.

If the key to success in voice information services comes from constant promotion, then what is to stop a directory publisher --or anyone else for that matter -- from promoting his classified voice services to the general public in the daily newspaper?

That is exactly what has happened in Seattle. SureFind Classifieds by Telephone, self-styled as "the nation's first fully interactive and instant multimedia classified advertising system," raised a stink when the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which publish under a joint-publishing agreement, refused to let real estate agents include the SureFind telephone number (206-287FIND) in the newspapers' classified advertising sections.

The Times handles advertising for both papers under' the JOA, and the newspaper was not happy about opening a Pandora's box of competing audiotex providers. After discussions with SureFind's lawyers, the Times did finally agree to let SureFind run an advertisement that included the phone number, but refused to let realestate agents include the SureFind number in their own classified ads.

James E. Lalonde, SureFind's founder, president, and chief executive officer, was a reporter for the Seattle Times before he started SureFind, and he wasted no time in crying "monopoly," in pointing out the irony of newspapers fighting the regional Bell operating companies in Washington, D.C., and then placing serious restrictions on access to the classified advertising "pipeline" in Seattle, Wash.

Lalonde has managed to convince other newspapers in the state that his service is not the root of all evil but, rather, a "value-added service."

Legally, newspapers may well be able to defend their right to control the content of their advertising, but the problem will come from the public perception of such litigation.

To make the decision even more difficult, publishers who allow such competing services in their paper risk damage to the traditional newspaper franchise in classifieds.

What is a newspaper to do? In order to maintain its position as the number one provider of news, information, and advertising in a market, newspapers may be forced to accommodate these competitors, to try to make the best of a parlous situation.

At the very least, companies such as SureFind are the marketplace equivalent of a wake-up call to newspapers which have been reluctant to move into voice personals and voice classifieds of their own volition. The future of classified advertising may belong to those newspapers which embrace the competition, then do them all one better.
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Title Annotation:classified advertising and electronic information services
Author:Coniff, Michael
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Article Type:Column
Date:Jun 20, 1992
Previous Article:Classified goes live.
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