updated 5/27/2005 8:42:52 PM ET 2005-05-28T00:42:52

Most of newspaper publisher Knight Ridder's Web sites have stopped charging people to post classified ads for household items and other merchandise, a switch designed to attract more traffic and spur more sales off-line as well as online.

The San Jose-based company dropped the online classified fees Friday in 22 of the 27 newspaper markets served by one of its Web sites. Previously, selling merchandise online for more than $200 cost $4.95 per month.

The giveaway applies only to online classified ads featuring merchandise. Online classifieds in most other categories, including real estate, automotive and help wanted, will continue to cost money to display.

As part of the pricing shift, Knight Ridder will start charging for classified ads featuring pets _ a category that had been free under a test program introduced in November.

Knight Ridder, which publishes 31 daily papers nationwide, is following the lead of Craigslist.org, a Web site that has been letting anyone post online ads at little or no cost for years.

First started in San Francisco, Craigslist now offers classified ads in 105 cities in 21 countries.

Craigslist's popularity has siphoned revenue from traditional newspapers as more classified ads shifted online. A study last year by media consultants Classified Intelligence estimated Craigslist cost San Francisco Bay area newspapers $50 million to $60 million in annual revenue.

The trend has forced newspaper publishers such as Knight Ridder to experiment with more unconventional approaches.

Online classified ads selling merchandise for less than $200 have been free on the Knight Ridder Web sites for the past seven months. The free ads lured more visitors and encouraged more people to buy ads in other categories, said Anna Zornosa, chief marketing officer for Knight Ridder's online operations.

The test convinced Knight Ridder that it would make more money than it lost by dropping the fees for all merchandise-only classifieds.

As part of its revenue-building drive, Knight Ridder this summer plans to introduce a service that will allow customers to simultaneously create classified ads for the company's Web sites and newspapers. Prices will be based on the rates charged by the newspapers.

The Web accounts represent a sliver of Knight Ridder's business. The company registered online sales of $114.6 million last year, or 4 percent of it total revenue.

Craig Newmark, who founded Craigslist 10 years ago, applauded Knight Ridder for moving toward more free classifieds. Newmark predicted Knight Ridder's toughest challenge will be policing the free ads to weed out scam artists trying to bamboozle buyers, Newmark said.

Knight Ridder's free online ads are available at the Web sites for most of the company's largest newspapers, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Kansas City Star, the San Jose Mercury News and The Miami Herald.

The only Knight Ridder Web sites still charging for merchandise-only classifieds are: The SunHerald in Biloxi, Miss.; The Tribune in San Luis Obispo, Calif.; the Tallahassee Democrat in Florida; The Telegraph in Macon, Ga.; and the Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Ohio.

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