It's no secret that newspapers are hurting these days. Here at the Deseret News, it's painful to watch the cutbacks and staff reductions reflective of an industry-wide response to declining revenues that are due in large measure to a marked reduction in classified advertising.

The want ads are wanting. In the old days, up to about five years ago, if people wanted to sell their cars, or boat, or washer and dryer, or advertise a job opening, or rent their house, or try to get in touch with the brunette they saw in the Firebird on State Street last Friday night, they went to one place: the newspaper classifieds, aka the community bulletin board.

But with the advent and increasing popularity of any number of Internet sites such as craigslist, cars.com, monster.com, MySpace and hundreds of others, the newspaper classifieds don't have the monopoly power they once enjoyed.

Throw in the fact that many of the Internet sites will advertise your stuff for free and it's not difficult to understand why classified revenue is dropping like prices of SUVs.

And just like that, a hundred years of gravy train runs out of track.

The Deseret News, which started publishing in 1850, is one of the country's oldest newspapers so its history in large measure parallels the history of American newspapering in general. Like many papers, it started out turning rags into newsprint — that's where the expression "that old rag" comes from — and also like many papers, it struggled to make ends meet through the turbulent 19th century, when the cost of making paper was high and the primary way of paying for it was in subscriptions and a few large paid ads from retailers.

But then, just as the 1800s were about to turn into the 1900s, some unassuming back-room genius came up with the idea of allowing the public to place small ads for anything and everything they wanted. These were called want ads.

As the late Wendell Ashton recounted in "A Voice in the West," the book he published in 1950 on the 100-year anniversary of the Deseret News, "The News had presented 'want ads' since its first edition in 1850 ... and a good chunk of News revenue had come from notices seeking stray cattle. But during the nineties they began to appear in a column headed with 'Wanted.' In 1894 there were only about a half dozen midget-size advertisements appearing in the column. By the end of 1898 the News was running about five columns of classified advertisements daily. As an important News department they had come to stay, and to grow."

Truer words were never more

understated. Throughout the 20th century, the want ads paced many a paper to prosperity. It's incalculable how many goods and services have been sold, bought, offered, solicited and traded through the little 8-point type in the back of the paper.

Like most cash cows, the conventional wisdom was that this one would last forever. Who could imagine anyone not selling their car in the newspaper?

But then along came the World Wide Web and the personal computer, and the masses didn't need to flock to just one community bulletin board any more. Suddenly, there were all kinds of choices, many not only cheaper but with much bigger audiences.

Add in the convenience that newspapers can now be read online, papers without paper, and it's clear why the industry is having to reinvent itself — and let me add in a personal aside, hopefully in a hurry.

It's another reminder that even things that you're sure will last forever, don't.

And if you think they will, remember back to when you would buy film for your camera, pay for it with a check, write a letter when you wanted to correspond with someone, find a pay phone if you wanted to talk to them, watch television on three networks, sit through all the commercials because you couldn't fast forward past them, play golf with wooden clubs, listen to cassette tapes you bought at a record store, and write it all down in your day planner. And the Yankees were always in first place.

That was, what, 20 years ago?

There is no gold standard. Just ask the gold standard. Or anyone who thought the profusion of classified ads in that old rag that landed daily in your flower bed would never end.


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.