If, like me, you’ve been reading newspapers for a long time (I’ve been reading the New York Times almost every day for 40 years), you noticed the dramatic decline in classified ad pages.
Back in the 1950s my dad would carefully look read the classified ads in the papers of any town he visited. He used them as an index of the real estate market and the job market, which gave him a pretty good idea of the local economy. Now they are gray vestiges of those robust days, and there is not enough data in most newspapers’ classified sections to form even a macro model of local business.
Award-winning designer Roger Black says there’s still life for (reinvented) print classifieds. (Photo: Rob Hunter)
Classifieds developed from random early “pub-set” paid notices of the “Missing Cow” variety. As populations and commerce increased, newspapers started organizing the ads into categories, so readers had a better chance of finding what they wanted. By the late 19th century, papers had columns of these ads, and by the 1920s pages of them.
The typography of early classifieds was by today’s standards quite elegant. There were little drop initials, and the type was about the same size as the news text, which was small. Eight-point or even seven-point body type was standard, 20 percent larger than today.
When American papers started adopting sans serif typefaces after World War II, classifieds were “modernized.” Linotype made a small Spartan (based on Futura) that was commonly used. The type got smaller, as classifieds proliferated and print competition was eliminated, and customers would still pay the price. “Agate” means five-and-a-half point, and to squeeze more profit the type got smaller, and by the 1970s newspapers were referring to them, as well as the sports results, as “the agate.”
‘Well, let’s drag all of that out, and take a few ideas from the Internet, and redesign the classifieds!’
If you look at classifieds from the 1950s, they were still fairly handsome gray pages, punctuated as they were with a number of “display classifieds” set in more condensed type. There were people in the composing room who cared about the look of these ads, as did the sales department. As a job, house, and car marketplace, local papers had a monopoly, and the publisher and editor didn’t pay any attention to their design.
Beginning in the 1970s, these pages were negatively impacted by production changes. Fonts had to be adapted for a series of new phototypesetters, CRT typesetters, then Postscript image-setters. As competition from cheap real-estate papers and shoppers increased, newspapers started making the type smaller, or condensing it on the typesetting machines (something they couldn’t do before).
The bean counters took over as the newspaper boom faded. Shrinking profit margins made them look for ways to get more ad revenue per square inch. Pages got smaller, and then smaller, and then even smaller, and yet many publishers held onto 10- or even 12-column classified pages.
The result was an almost unreadable product, badly organized, badly produced. A smeary gray mess. And then the bottom fell out. Classifieds went online, where point size didn’t matter, where customers could search and compare. And then the big Game Changer arrived: Craigslist. And classifieds were history.
Or maybe not.
Maybe we could stop blaming the customers or the competition or Craig Newmark and think up a classified product that people might actually like!
Some of us remember the ill-fated Boca Raton experiment, with tabulated classifieds so you could scan for prices. Well, let’s drag all of that out, and take a few ideas from the Internet, and redesign the classifieds!
It turns out, I got paid a good deal of money by a publisher in the Rocky Mountain states to do just this. (The company will remain unnamed, since the guy who hired me left and the new guy threw out all of my ideas.)
We looked at making the type bigger, and to adding useful editorial content. This is why I get paid the big bucks.
And since this work was discarded, let me share a few of the high points:
1. Provide a variety of premium ad format options:
- Text sizes
- Special headlines
- Drop initials (!)
- Color type
2. Print pictures, for a reasonable price:
- Mugs and chip-shots
- Column width
3. Organize the ads for the customers:
4. Get the newsroom to produce contextual content:
- How to sell, and buy
- Finding a job, managing a career
- The markets: real estate, cars, jobs
5. Put in some content extras:
- Top ten
6. Use more graphics:
- Charts, tables, graphs
7. Fix the physical product:
- Bigger type everywhere
- White space
- Real design
- Better paper
- Color photos
All of this can exist alongside the Internet. With a little work we can make something that people might find value in. And advertisers might again find classifieds worth the cost. For example: A comparative guide to current home listings would be a good thing to take with you when you are out shopping for a house. And, you may not be in the market for a dog, but if you knew that there was a good pet section in the paper, you might pick it up when the kids suddenly decided they had to have a dog.
Classifieds won’t reclaim the ground they held in the 1950s, but a great product — and a profitable one — is still within reach.
Roger Black is a leading publication and online designer who has worked on newspapers, magazines, and websites around the world. His client list and accomplishments are too long for this short bio blurb, but you can learn more at RogerBlack.com.