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Newspapers Are Making Matches a Buyer’s Market

September 21, 1993

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) _ More and more of the nation’s newspapers are stepping in as high-tech matchmakers, offering a chance at romance for Sleepless in Seattle, Desperate in Des Moines and Alone in Abilene.

Their ″voice personal″ classified ads use voice-mail technology to help the lonely find love - and not incidentally, to help the papers’ profits in a time of lagging circulation and advertising, industry experts said.

About 275 newspapers offer such matchmaking services, up from 25 newspapers in 1990, said Randy Bennett, new technologies program manager for the Newspaper Association of America of Reston, Va.

″It’s been a phenomenal and very unexpected source of revenue,″ said Pat McDonald, a newspaper marketing consultant in Lafayette, Ind.

The ads are generating as much as $60 million for the newspaper industry, said Wayne Miller, president of Minneapolis-based MicroVoice Communications, which provides voice-mail advertising for about 300 newspapers.

The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News began running telephone personals in April with 50 ads. Volume had grown to almost 600 listings by early August, said Kathy McKenna, a classified ad manager for the newspapers.

The Los Angeles Times has been running about 3,000 listings weekly since it introduced its ″voice personals″ in June 1992. Each week, the Times gets about 750 new listings to replace outdated ones, spokeswoman Michele Biagioni said.

While personals are new to many mainstream newspapers, they are old hat for the alternative press. The Village Voice has been running them since 1957. The old New York Herald’s personal ads before and after the Civil War were notorious.

Voice personals, though, are different: The customer is paying to meet the advertiser, instead of the other way around.

Usually, the newspaper publishes free ads phoned in by people looking to meet new people.

Those answering an ad dial up a ″900″ telephone voice-mail system at a cost of up to $2 per minute. Then the advertiser screens the responses by dialing the same number, also at a cost of up to $2 per minute.

″People don’t want to pay for anything unless it’s libido-driven. Then, the sky’s the limit,″ said Richard Wallace, information service director for The Village Voice.

Personal ads are nothing new for The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail, which published the ads the old-fashioned way, in classified advertising pages in space bought by the advertiser, who would collect responses by mail.

In May, the newspapers went to ″tele-personals.″

″The Meeting Place″ contained 45 ads when it first ran in Sunday editions of May 23. In 11 weeks, the volume more than tripled to 146 listings, said Carolyn Perry, marketing director for the newspapers.

″It is more than we anticipated,″ she said. ″And we’ve found it’s not just young people. We have a lot of people 34 years old and older.″

And in a nod to ’90s realities, the Charleston newspapers use a warning label with each display.

″IMPORTANT: First meetings should occur in a well-lit, public place for your first few encounters. Do not give our your last name, address, phone number or place of employment until you are comfortable doing so. ...″

″We actually just advise people to use common sense,″ Perry said.

″It’s very standard, something we already tell every advertiser,″ said Mary Anne Wesner, account executive for MicroVoice Communications, which handles the telephone service for the Charleston Newspapers and dozens of others newspapers.

Not all newspapers have embraced the idea. Through most of their brief history, 900 numbers have had a sleazy reputation, and some publishers are uncomfortable with them.

″There was a lot of stigmatizing of the 900 services,″ McDonald said.

″There was an adamant refusal among an awful lot of publishers who would never do something like this. There was a belief that this thing was dirty,″ said Tom Stites, vice president of the UniMedia Division of the Universal Press Syndicate of Kansas City, Mo.

The syndicate provided voice personal services to more than 70 newspapers until about four months ago, when Brite Voice Systems of Wichita, Kan., bought out UniMedia’s client list.

But Stites is still a believer in voice personals as a public service.

″The demographics are startling,″ Stites said.

″The 1990 census shows that 25 percent of all the households in America consist of only one person. There’s never been anything like this in the history of the world. And nobody knows how to deal with that. I almost came to believe that this was a noble service for newspapers to provide,″ he said.

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