Employment advertising may not appear to be a large part of the total package, yet it is crucial to the health and profitability of the newspaper industry. For decades, the back of the book has been the place where job seekers sought positions. Even with the challenge of online job-hunting Web sites like Monster, newspapers with their combination of print and Internet have managed to maintain their hold on the majority of placements. When it comes to the bottom line, the classified ad category in general (and help wanted in particular) can make or break a newspaper.
Even as other parts of the ad-revenue picture have improved, even in classified, help wanted - like the overall job market - hasn't fared as well. Even the recent positive news about the economy - including higher retail sales and productivity and gross domestic product gains in the high single digits - haven't translated so far into sustained job growth. No job growth, no increase in help wanted. Or - as one newspaper executive put it last week - until companies start hiring again, you can expect a poor showing in help-wanted linage.
But as 2003 turns into 2004, the tone of newspaper executives has changed. As a whole, they're still cautious about the future of employment advertising, and they're no longer saying that the bottom has yet to be reached. They're now predicting improvement in 2004 as employers begin to hire again.
"Help wanted appears to be coming back," said Douglas McCorkindale, chairman and chief executive officer of Gannett, which owns USA Today and dozens of other daily newspapers.
Robert Jelenic, president and chief executive officer of the community newspaper company Journal Register, was bullish about help wanted when he spoke at an investor's conference in New York City last weekend. After posting an overall 3 percent increase in employment advertising last month - and a double-digit rise in the company's papers around the Albany, N.Y. and New Haven, Conn. regions - Jelenic believed that small- and mid-size regions were poised to lead the recovery in jobs.
"We are very encouraged by our recent employment advertising trends," Jelenic said. "Employment's probably the hardest to predict right now, but we like the movement - we like the trend."
At The Washington Post, in a market that has been hit hard by the tech bust, Chief Executive Officer Donald Graham said that help wanted has had a slight swing, up by about 3 percent. Is it the beginning of a turnaround? "No one is hoping more fervently than I," Graham said. Anthony Ridder, chief executive officer of Knight Ridder, said that there have been positive signs at his newspapers, even if these mean only that the overall numbers have stopped declining.