Papers Finally Get The Help They've Wanted

It appears that the newspaper industry got a Christmas present that it's been wanting for the past three years: An increase in help-wanted advertising.

The Conference Board said Monday that its Help-Wanted Advertising Index rose in November as many areas of the country saw increases in employment classifieds and the nation's jobless rate trended down again. The Conference Board, which is probably best known for its consumer confidence surveys, also measures the volume of employment advertising in 51 newspapers nationwide every month.

An increase, coupled with other signs of an economy that's picking up steam, would be great news for the newspaper industry, which has lost hundreds of millions of dollars since 2001 as employers shed jobs and stopped hiring. Classified advertising, particularly help-wanted, is considered not only a good indication of the newspaper industry's health, but it's also revenues that fall right to the bottom line.

"The labor market is finally sparking to life," said Conference Board economist Ken Goldstein.

Goldstein said that initial unemployment claims have been trending lower in the last two months, and finally in November help-wanted ads rose for the first time since June. Seventy-three percent of labor markets showed a higher volume of help-wanted advertising in November, compared to 37 percent in October and 39 percent in September.

In the last three months, the volume of help-wanted advertising rose in seven of the Conference Board's nine regions, including New England (up 15.6 percent), East North Central (up 12 percent) and West South Central (up 8.1 percent). The Mountain and Southern Atlantic regions were down slightly.

The nation's largest newspaper companies showed a mixed bag in November, with some showing increases and others still seeing hefty declines. At Gannett newspapers, which include USA Today, employment classified revenues rose 1 percent. The category rose 14.5 percent in November at newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises, and as of the end of November was up 7.4 percent year-to-date. Metro newspapers owned by Media General saw employment classifieds jump 19.9 percent in November, led by the Tampa Tribune and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Recruitment advertising at The New York Times was down 17.8 percent in November, and its New England unit (including the Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram) were down 6.5 percent compared to November 2002. The category was down 11.8 percent year-over-year at Knight Ridder's newspapers, although one third of its newspapers showed increases. Those included Fort Worth, Texas.; Wichita, Kan.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Brandenton and Tallahassee, Fla.; and State College, Pa.

Lee wasn't the only community newspaper company to show strong increases in help-wanted classifieds. Journal Register Co., which owns newspapers in the Northeast and Cleveland, Ohio, reported a 3 percent rise in November compared to the same period a year ago. Journal Register said it was the best year-over-year performance since January 2001 and its seventh straight month of improvement. Journal Register's newspapers in the Albany-Saratoga region of New York saw the biggest increase, up 26.6 percent, and its cluster of newspapers in Connecticut were up 11.7 percent. The New Haven Register, located in the heart of hard-hit Connecticut, reported a 14.2 increase in help-wanted advertising in November, the best performance since March 2000.

At investors' conferences held earlier this month in New York City, newspaper executives started sounding positive on help-wanted advertising for the first time since 2000. They also predicted things would get even better in 2004 as the job market heated up, and said that newspapers were uniquely positioned to take advantage of recruitment advertising.

"Is it the beginning of a turnaround," asked Donald Graham, Washington Post Co.'s chief executive officer. "No one is hoping more fervently than I." The company saw a slight swing upward of employment advertising in November.