If local newspapers want to save themselves from Craigslist, Wal-Mart is their best chance.

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June 3 2008 2:07 PM

Can Wal-Mart Save Local Newspapers?

Craigslist, take note: It takes one monolithic villain to beat another.

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That's where Wal-Mart's deal with Oodle could be a turning point. Wal-Mart is a big-name company that can rally newspapers around one technology and one classified portal. Think about it: When a major celebrity picks one nonprofit to highlight his or her agenda, folks quickly rally around that organization to express their activism. (See: the One Campaign, Save Darfur, Barack Obama).

Wal-Mart certainly qualifies as a celebrity in the world of commerce. Last year, it had enough revenue to be one of the 25 largest countries in the world. Twenty-six million people already come to WalMart.com every month, which makes it one of the biggest players in Oodle's network. Newspapers looking to increase their sales pitch to prospective classified advertisers can say that at least 26 million Wal-Mart customers are among the paper's clientele.

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Also, there's an opportunity for Wal-Mart to tap into its rural strengths. Craigslist, with its Spartan layout, city-centered mentality, and questionable personal ads comes across as a product of the urban, young techno-elite. Wal-Mart can be the people's champion, protecting small-town papers and communities from big, scary San Francisco snobs. (Already, Craigslist's current expansion centers on creating new markets beyond its typical urban focal points.) Wal-Mart can use its neighborhood roots to convince local papers to join its (and, therefore, Oodle's) classified network. This is a PR coup for Wal-Mart, which can spin the initiative as its way of investing in local communities—something it hasn't exactly been known for in the past. And that's why it's such smart business for Wal-Mart to enter into the local, online classifieds game in the first place. Protecting the First Amendment is a good way to convince Americans you aren't the devil.

But this elaborate scheme to save the local press isn't happening anytime soon—at least not while Wal-Mart continues to be a reluctant messiah. When contacted, Wal-Mart wouldn't schedule an interview for this story, issuing only a cryptic statement in response. The Classifieds page is still hidden on WalMart.com, and I couldn't find any promotions pointing users to the new feature. If Wal-Mart is planning to save the local press, they're certainly being coy about it. Maybe the Wal-Mart Classified's logo should be a winking emoticon ;-) rather than their usual smiley-face logo.

But the onus isn't squarely on Wal-Mart. Newspapers need to sign up with the Oodle network in order to build incentives for Wal-Mart to give its Classifieds site the publicity it needs to thrive. The more classifieds available, the more impressive of a product Wal-Mart has to tout.

Still, Wal-Mart would be silly to pass up the opportunity to capitalize on the online classifieds market without at least trying. The Anybody But Craigslist movement needs a leader. Who better to lead than a company that knows a thing or two about being an industry's monolithic villain?