Your newspaper's on-line edition is often the first place customers go when they are shopping for automobiles or homes in your trade area. Too often, they are disappointed with the results.

It's important to understand that advertising is some of the most important content you can post to your newspaper's web site.

We know from looking at statistics from nearly 400 on-line community newspapers in the I.N.N./Townnews.com network that consumers like to read classifieds on the Internet. Consistently, 20 to 50 percent of all on-line newspaper Web traffic is consumers looking at classified ads. Next to local news, classifieds is the most heavily visited part of a typical on-line community newspaper.

This makes your on-line newspaper a market place, which is great news. The bad news is that most on-line newspapers offer little advertising content beyond classifieds.

Persons moving into an area will often begin research on their new community by checking out the area's on-line newspaper. One of the key areas these newcomers would like to research is the real estate market.

Ask yourself: If someone was looking for a home to buy or rent on your newspaper's web site what would they find? Too often the answer is "very little" other than what listings appeared in your classifieds.

Ask yourself the same question about shopping on-line for a new or used automobile. Better yet, try shopping for a vehicle on your newspaper web site. The results likely will be disappointing. You will have to go elsewhere on the Web to shop for a vehicle.

Real estate firms and auto dealers largely have by-passed on-line newspapers. They have created their own web sites, or become affiliated with national Internet programs such as Realtor.com or Autobytel.

Newspapers have been left out of the picture for a variety of reasons, including:

1. Lack of a product/technology to sell;

2. Lack of skills to sell on-line products;

3. Being late to market and allowing competitors to take the business away.

There are now several good products (HomeSeller and carsortrucks.com being prime among them) that smaller and medium-size newspapers can acquire to handle the technology issue.

The issue of having a skilled sales staff to sell the technology is still probably is the greatest challenge facing newspapers. We "own" the Internet in our trade areas but we don't know how to sell it.

The issue of some other company already "owing" the on-line real estate or automobile business in your markets may be more curable than you know.

Some of the national companies that were offering Internet solutions are struggling in the dot-bomb era. They are raising prices and/or cutting service. Many are reducing their promotion budgets, which makes it harder for consumers to find these sites.

Publishers and ad managers would be well advised to discuss this issue with local agents and car dealers to see if they are happy with the national/regional programs they're using. A lot of car dealers and real estate firms would at least listen to a local option - especially if you can demonstrate that your paper "owns" the local Internet market place.

Tell your real estate agents and car dealers that research has proved local newspapers are the dominant local Internet players. A recent survey of 10,000 online consumers conducted by NFO Ad:Impact showed that two-thirds of the consumers were aware of newspaper sites - more than double the next category.

"Newspapers are in a wonderful position to focus on building user traffic that is not only interested in gathering news and local market information but is also interested in shopping," said Emil Morales, president of NFI Ad:Impact.

Online newspapers have unmatchable local audiences. Technology is now available to newspapers that allow them to compete with national companies trying to dominate the local real estate and auto markets.

The missing element may be the newspapers' lack of willingness, determination and skill to sell online products. Left unchanged, that's a lose-lose-lose situation for consumers, advertisers and the newspaper.