HELP WANTED: THE ADOPTION OF
PERSONAL ADVERTISEMENTS BY THE DAILY PRESS
Debra L. Merskin, School of Journalism & Communication, University of
(503-346-4189) Email: [log in to unmask]
Thomas J. Herling, S.I. Newhouse School of Communications, Syracuse
Submitted to the annual meeting of the Association for Education in
Journalism and Mass Communication, Washington, DC, 1995
Running head: HELP WANTED
HELP WANTED: THE ADOPTION OF
PERSONAL ADVERTISEMENTS BY THE DAILY PRESS
Abstract:: This study reports the findings of a national telephone survey
conducted to explore the adoption of personal advertisements by
press. The findings show widespread adoption of these ads, with
277 percent increase from 1987 to 1993. Most of the newspapers made use
of voice mail technology with the ads becoming an increasingly
source of revenue. Newspapers are facing questions concerning
role of the newspaper in a changing society.
HELP WANTED: THE ADOPTION OF
PERSONAL ADVERTISEMENTS BY THE DAILY PRESS
Individuals and organizations constantly confront new ideas, products,
behaviors and technologies. These innovations have been formally
as "ideas, practices or objects that are perceived as new by an
or another unit of adoption." Adoption is defined as "a
decision to make
full use of an innovation as the best course of action available"
problems. In the case of daily newspapers, the problem is
continuing revenue. Audiotex technology is an innovation which
are adopting in growing numbers to improve classified advertising
with services such as personal advertisements.
There is little empirical research available regarding newspaper
classified advertising. This study contributes to this limited body
literature as well as to the literature on the adoption of
The information provided in this study is useful not only to
but also to newspapers that are interested in the extent of the
Newspapers and the Adoption of Innovations
Newspaper organizations have historically been innovation adopters. In
the early nineteenth century several innovations made the modern
possible. Developments in the printing process, cheap paper,
plate-making, the telegraph, along with the social innovation of
a rise in
literacy, made the mass circulation press possible.
Along with innovations in the physical production of the newspaper and
the ability to produce large numbers of copies, another powerful
innovation was the adoption of advertising in the daily press. Since
when Benjamin Day found he could no longer sell his New York Sun
cents a copy, newspapers have relied on advertising support.
support comes from outside commercial enterprises and individuals in
form of retail and classified advertising.
The newspaper business evolved, changing from a time when newspapers had
been driven by a strong editorial personality toward becoming the
market-driven mass medium it is today. In 1879, American newspapers and
periodicals received 56 percent of their revenue from circulation
percent from advertising. By 1889, the split was
Just ten years later, ad dollars made up a majority of newspaper
45.5 percent of revenue came from circulation while over 54
from advertising by 1899.
Since World War II, the dollar volume of the newspaper industry has grown,
from $2.1 billion in 1950 to $32.2 billion in 1990. Despite the decline
in the actual number of daily newspapers during the same period,
ad revenue grew steadily.
However, newspapers have faced an increasingly competitive market for
audiences and advertisers, particularly with the rise of electronic
Newspapers' share of advertising expenditures has declined in the last
thirty years. The Newspaper Advertising Bureau reported that
newspapers enjoyed more than a thirty percent share of total
expenditures in 1960, the figure has steadily dropped to 29.4
1970, 27.6 percent in 1980 and 24.9 percent in 1990. This
likely to continue as new advertising vehicles, such as interactive
enter the market.
Classifieds in a Competitive Market
Classified advertising is considered to be "the backbone of the
newspaper." Pejoratively referred to by some as the "want ads,"
classifieds have long been a major source of newspaper ad revenue.
Seventy-million adults across the United States read one or more
advertisements per week, and of that number, 12 million follow up with an
inquiry. According to the Newspaper Association of America,
advertising made up 35 percent of newspapers' $30.7 billion in ad
During the recent recession, however, newspapers suffered losses due to a
decline in the three major classified advertising categories:
employment and real estate. New strategies were sought to defend
billion classified advertising base. According to Newspaper Association
of America President Cathleen Black
We are at the beginning of a time when the newspaper as it is
historically viewed, will take on a broader role. It doesn't only
have to be a traditional newspaper as we know it.
The adoption of new technologies may allow daily newspapers to remain
competitive with other media such as television and cable.
Deppa, the appearance of "phone, fax, modem and audiotex are
up. Without audiotex, newspapers will be the odd man out."
been hailed by Editor and Publisher as "the lifeline that could
newspapers out of the swamp of lost revenue." Nearly
one-third of all
newspapers now supply audiotext services to their readers.
select items of interest from a menu printed in the newspaper.
item of interest is selected, callers use a touch-tone phone
advertisement's access code and to receive information or leave a
message for the advertiser. In some cases these are free 1-800
calls. In others, the 1-900 number access is billable by the
with prices ranging from $1 to $2 per minute.
According to Piirto, the biggest use of newspaper-based 900 numbers has
been for classified advertising categories such as real estate,
help wanted and personals. The Baltimore Sun has a service where readers
can respond to employment advertisements by leaving a voice resume.
Callers can dial up not only the news and weather but classified
advertisements "read" by a computerized voice providing stock-market
information, housing loan rates, lottery results, pizza places,
opera updates or to respond to personal (dating) advertisements.
Adoption of Voice Personals
Although personal ads have been around for many years, the numbers
increased substantially in the 1960s and 1970s, mainly in alternative
papers such as the Village Voice and the Boston Phoenix. In the
and 1990s there was an explosion of personal ads in the daily press.
Newspapers such as the Washington Post, the Green Bay Gazette,
Francisco Examiner and the Syracuse Post -Standard now feature
Many of these large daily newspapers have begun using voice mail for the
personals. The addition of voice mail personal advertisements to
repertoire of classified ads suggests an important change in sources
revenue for the daily press.
Promoted as a solution to changing lifestyles, audio enhanced personal
advertisements also represent the adoption of a technological
for the newspaper industry. According to Webb:
We are seeing audiotex as an evolution out of people's basic need for
information. They don't necessarily take time to sit down
newspaper in the morning. If you look at the way society is
audiotex is simply the medium which is going to be more
their lifestyle and fit right into their lifestyle.
Few have addressed the importance of the addition of voice personal
advertisements to the repertoire of products offered by the daily
and what this represents in terms of image, function, and financial
success. Rogers' model proposes that adoption of innovations in
society offers choices that help solve the problems of daily life
individuals and organizations. Ideas, practices or objects which
perceived as new are selected and used as the best option
Previous studies have shown that the adoption of an innovation
S-shaped cumulative curve. The reason for the normal S-shaped
based upon the role of information and uncertainty reduction.
categories can be set forth as ideal types on an innovativeness
The types are innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority,
and laggards. In all of these categories, opinion leadership
important role. Although discussion of the adoption of innovations
to focus primarily on the individual, organizations also adopt.
include computerization of government offices, computerized
feeds of newspapers, and technology in schools.
The growing adoption of personal ads implies that a transition is also
taking place in dating behavior. Previous studies of this
been primarily conducted by researchers in the disciplines of family
studies, sociology and to a lesser extent, marketing. For example,
Hirschman analyzed the personals from a marketing perspective,
phenomenon as a "complex, heterogeneous marketing exchange."
studies have addressed the issue of physical appearance,
relationship development, gender differences and differences based on
Mate-seeking through similar electronic media has been explored in
articles recounting the experiences of popular communication patterns.
Users of the French Minitel system have been found to post
soliciting romantic adventures to a community bulletin board, often
withholding their identity or using a pseudonym. It has been
that this activity is seen as "the emotional equivalent of safe
sex in an
age when physical contact is often associated with
and Ahuvia reviewed the growth of "marriage market intermediaries" by
discussing various formats from video-dating services to personal
advertisements. These researchers argued that these artificial
partner-seeking environments foster inappropriate disclosures that
hinder the process rather than facilitating it .
This study was conducted to gauge the extent of adoption of voice mail
personal advertisements. Additional information was sought about
reasons newspapers have added the ads, methods of responding to the
and the physical characteristics of this section of the
newspaper. This is
a descriptive study. No formal hypotheses were tested.
A telephone survey was conducted to measure the extent of the adoption of
personal advertisements by daily newspapers. The sampling frame
of 268 newspapers with circulations of 50,000 or more as listed
in Editor &
Publisher Yearbook, 1991. A random sample of 67 newspapers was drawn
using the systematic skip interval method.
From November 1992 to May 1993, interviews were conducted with classified
managers at each of the 67 newspapers. A 100 percent response rate was
achieved. The newspaper managers were called during regular
hours, typically in mid-afternoon when deadline pressure was less
interfere. Occasionally, reaching the right person to interview was
difficult. At one California paper, the interviewer was connected
seven different people before finally reaching the appropriate
Approximately two to three calls were necessary to complete each
Two newspapers refused to answer the questions by phone but did reply via
These representatives were asked if the newspaper was running voice
personals, and if so, the year of adoption. Additional questions
any criteria used in accepting or rejecting ads, such as those from
gays/lesbians or "alternative lifestyle" ads, such as those seeking
multiple partners or more exotic variations. Other questions
mechanics of the ads, the days of the week the ads ran, how responses were
made to the ads, and what costs were involved. A sample page (tear sheet)
was requested from each paper to verify these replies.
Nearly four out of five (55) of the newspapers reported carrying personal
advertisements, as Table 1 shows. An additional 11 percent of
said they had plans to add the personals within the next few
newspapers were not carrying dating ads, nor did they indicate
plans for doing so.
NEWSPAPER ADOPTION OF THE PERSONALS
Plans to add
No plans to carry
Table 2 shows nearly two-thirds of the newspapers began running the ads
between 1991 and May of 1993.
YEAR OF ADOPTION OF THE PERSONALS
Year Frequency Percent Cumulative Percent
Figure 1 shows that the cumulative diffusion curve follows a classic
CUMULATIVE ADOPTION OF
PERSONAL ADVERTISEMENTS BY NEWSPAPERS
1987 - 1993
More than one third of personal ads sections (36 percent) occupied
one-half to one page of space. Another third of the papers filled 1
pages. Two newspapers (3 percent) had personal ads sections of
or larger while the remainder of the papers had sections of one-half a
page or less. Nearly two-thirds of the newspapers ran the
personals in a
full-sized section of the newspaper while a smaller percentage
the personals in tabloid inserts.
More than a third of the dailies (36 percent) ran the ads on Fridays,
Saturdays and/or Sundays. Approximately 27 percent of the papers
ads on some combination of weekdays and about a quarter of the
the ads seven days per week. A few papers had other
Newspapers also varied in the types of advertisements they would accept.
As Table 3 reveals, half (50.9 percent) would not accept gay
(76.4 percent) would not accept "alternative lifestyle" ads.
two-thirds of the newspapers applied their own criteria to
language of the ads while 22 percent relied on a voice mail
perform this task.
Accepts gay ads
Does not accept gay ads
Accepts alternative lifestyle ads
Does not accept alternative lifestyle ads
* Newspapers may have a combination of these policies, totals therefore do not
Voice mail was found to be the most common method of responding to
personals (79 percent). Only nine papers offered the more traditional
of responding, which is by letter only (13.4 percent).
daily newspaper was not the only local publication carrying the
Two-thirds of the papers surveyed had competition from another local paper
for personal advertisers (66 percent).
Although most of the newspapers surveyed would not reveal detailed
financial information, almost half of the papers indicated that the
been a financial success. According to one manager, the paper received
approximately 300 ads per month and that the average time spent
is 3 minutes at a cost of $1.95 per minute. Even if the
advertiser's ad is
free, each ad generates approximately $108. This would result in revenues
of over $30,000 per month or roughly $400,000 per year. Another paper
indicated that their take was over $500,000 during the past year.
Many papers have invested in their own voice mail hardware. Others rely
on vendors. The financial success of the personals has been a
point for the many voice mail vendors involved in the personal ads
business. Although this study did not specifically investigate the
involvement of vendors, many representatives mentioned that the work
(and the revenue) are shared with a vendor. Often, these
the advertising placement, response retrieval, and reply process.
vendors represent more than one newspaper. Compensation
For example, one newspaper representative indicated her paper takes 90
percent of the revenue generated from the ads and the vendor
The findings suggest that daily newspapers have adopted voice mail
personals as a course of action available to solve three problems:
readership and service.
Revenue. A newspaper is primarily a business and in the midst of the
recent economic recession many papers sought ways to replace lost
In many cases, the organizational decision was made to pursue a solution
through the adoption of a new technology--voice mail--which has
means of generating revenue through charges for access to
Readership. The addition of personal ads suggests that newspapers are
looking to (1) increase readership of the newspaper by attracting
non-subscribers in general, (2) increase readership of the newspaper
the lucrative but shrinking younger audience and, (3) draw
the classified section of the newspaper in hopes that they would
respond to other classified advertisements.
Service. Many of the newspapers cited the altruistic duty of the
newspaper to serve the public. One way of doing this was by helping
meet people. Representatives suggested that the dating community
changing because people are particularly busy, many of whom are
children. Women's involvement in the labor force was also cited.
characteristics of modern life therefore limit the options of
seeking to meet others.
It is important to note that this was a study of daily newspapers, rather
than of the alternative press. Those dailies that had not adopted the
personals cited reasons such as conflicts with the "family image"
newspaper, not being a "proper role" for the daily newspaper and
unsavory advertisers to the paper. All of these reasons are part of
traditional perceptions surrounding personal advertisements. In
there is stigma associated with running an ad for a date. A
perception has been that a person must be desperate and dateless to do
The widespread adoption of personal advertisements by the daily press
suggests that perceptions are changing on part of the public and
Newspaper personal ads imply a changing role for the daily newspaper in
contemporary society. The mating trade is now worth millions of
and takes a variety of forms, from 1-900 telephone numbers to
services. The importance of this to newspapers is multi-fold. A
problem for newspapers is the diminishing numbers of subscribers. This
translates into reduced audiences for advertising. As a result,
have narrowly targeted sections in hopes of attracting more readers.
Efforts to capture the elusive younger audience has motivated many
newspapers to add personal advertisements to its repertoire of
The personal ads section serves a need for users and viewers--a
entertainment function. These uses translate into hundreds of
dollars a year in revenue. The amount of revenue generated is likely to
vary with market size, promotional efforts, and amount of repeat
Newspapers also need to compete with other media for these audiences. To
do so, they must remain competitive technologically as well as in
their content. Newspapers have a variety of tools to serve
readers that go
far beyond the confines of the printed page. Fax information, on-line
data retrieval, and telephone news lines are now available to
readers with a tremendous amount of information that the paper
not have room to print.
Some critics might suggest that providing access to dates for members of
the community is not a suitable role for the press. These
critics may feel
that using precious space to advertise call-in services for dates, jokes
and other seemingly frivolous items, trivializes the newspaper.
lower the reputation of newspapers in the eyes of an increasingly
In addition, personal advertisements and the voice technology used by them
may only be a fad--a passing fancy of readers soon to be replaced by some
other preoccupation. Newspapers are spending a considerable
money to carry these ads. Adopting voice personals requires that
newspaper pay for expensive voice mail equipment or to share the
with vendors. The opportunity for vendors to make a tremendous
money through the newspapers could be a problem. For example, a
may unable to ascertain whether the vendor is operating in an
manner. For example, an unscrupulous vendor may seek to increase
by planting intriguing yet phony ads. These are questions the newspapers
need to address when considering adoption of the personals,
Table 4 (next page).
Implications for Newspapers
of Carrying Personal Advertisements
y Revenue producer.
y Attracts readers and potential subscribers.
y Provides a service to the community.
y Creates another use for the newspaper.
y Keeps the newspaper competitive with other media.
y Encourages relationships with outside vendors.
y Requires the newspaper pay for expensive equipment or share revenue
y A source of potential liability to the newspaper.
y A loss to the community of service as detracting from the proper role
y Questionable nature of vendors.
The findings of this study suggest several areas of future research. For
example, the adoption of voice mail services in general, and
specifically, suggests a fundamental change in the newspaper as
traditionally been known. Future studies could exam this
changing role of
the newspaper. Another area of research is the phenomenon of the
organizational adoption of innovations by the newspaper. Also, factors
resistance to innovations on the part of newspapers. The
ements themselves represent a wealth of information on the users
readers of the daily paper. In addition, the availability of a
that facilitates the dating and meeting process suggests a change
popular perceptions of securing a partner.
As well as being a possible source of new revenue and a sign of changing
lifestyles, voice mail personal advertisements also suggest a new
for the daily press, evolving out of people's basic information
That information can also include the availability of people
community who are looking for some type of personal relationship.
one can order up information on how IBM stock is trading, so too
call up to get more information about a "single white male, 32, looking
for good times." As the adoption of personal advertisements adds
repertoire of products featured in an evolving daily press,
to face questions about the changing role of the newspaper in a changing
society. As individuals in a mass society come to rely on the
information, the media respond by redefining themselves through
adoption of new communications technologies.
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