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The decline of their ad share with retailers has newspapers worried to death. But several execs speaking at the NAA Marketing Conference last week in Las Vegas said they can bring retailers back into the fold with special vertical sites.

Ken Riddick, VP of interactive media at The Minneapolis Star Tribune, says the newspaper has attracted 300 businesses to its ShopMN site, which is a partnership with the Minnesota Retailers Association and was developed with Planet Discover. “Selling is the biggest challenge we have,” says Riddick.

“Try (selling) packages that are small, and easy to understand that last for six or 12 months,” he advises. “Even if I don’t draw big revenues for a shopping channel, as long as there is an audience, I can monetize it” with advertising.

Riddick is especially bullish on neighborhood-level search. “It can be very powerful, especially for smaller advertisers,” he says. Search also provides rich opportunities for additional contextual advertising. “We have 19,542 listings for the search term ‘Garden,’ ” he says.

Jim Michels, director of new media for The Evansville Courier & Press, says his paper’s vertical approach has similarly had strong dividends. Home improvement is the paper’s first vertical. “We had research showing that people want to put money into their house,” he says.

The resulting site, Tri-State Home Show, has sold 125 enhanced listings at up to $29.95 per month (note: URL and figure corrected). “It is bringing in $55,000 of extra revenue,” he says. He thinks the paper can probably boost sales up to 150.

How newspapers will work with retailers for their classified sections, however, remains a source of debate. Michael Kranitz, president and CEO of Kaango, says search-centric approaches embraced by Oodle, Edgeio and other classified aggregators aren’t good enough. He suggests that newspapers instead focus on providing a rich media experience for retailers, and a better network for building traffic.

“You are raising the classifieds experience of the retail industry by leading with liners? Are you kidding? What are you doing with your long-term strategy?” He also notes that such sites are unwieldy to use. “Don’t put 400 skus for me to search past,” he says.

Kranitz especially derides efforts to help retailers put their inventory online. He says he has been told that “if we want retailers’ stuff, we’ll go directly to their site.”

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