What’s the biggest threat to our newspapers? A super-powered regulator imposing corrections on them? Or an accelerating collapse in revenue from that universal agent of chaos, the internet?

The Finkelstein report may have noted that the decline in newspapers has been going on for decades, but there are new problems for newspapers now — not that you’d know from reading them.

Today the papers all but ignored the strong ANZ job ads survey results for February: a 3.3% rise in job ads in February, coming after the restated 7.5% jump in January (6% originally reported), was relegated to a paragraph or two in a page-three report in The Australian Financial Review (eight paragraphs into the report); at the bottom of a page 23 report in The Australian‘s business pages, and the final paragraph in a report in The Sydney Morning Herald’s business section on page 4, from a story that started on the front page of the section. In other words, the papers didn’t want to know about the report, which was the most positive of all yesterday’s data releases.

And yes, the data didn’t fit the current media narrative on the economy: that it is weak and looking for help, with jobs under threat, companies imperilled and manufacturing a basket case. If the survey had shown a contraction in job advertising in February, the newspapers would have been all over it, along with a weak survey of the services sector, a fall in company profits, a rise in business inventories and low wages growth (all for the December quarter).

But there’s another reason: the February report shows newspapers are becoming irrelevant to job advertising, and are going backwards while the jobs market is growing.

Look at the composition of the February (and January) job ads growth: online job ads increased 3.8% in February to be 4.9% higher than a year ago. Newspaper job ads went the other way: down 8.6% from a year ago, with big falls in NSW and Queensland in particular, to be 22.3% lower than February 2011. Newspaper job ads fell 3.1% in January, while internet job ads rose 6.4% (and total ads rose 5% as originally reported).

Total job advertising is now 3.6% higher than a year earlier and the ANZ said total job advertising is now 9.8% above the low in October of last year. That growth is all down to internet job ads. Newspaper job ads fell 15.1% in NSW; 4.9% in Victoria. In Queensland they dropped 8.2% while in Western Australia they fell 6.4%. In South Australia they sank 5.4%, while in Tasmania they plunged dropped 14.2% in the month.

A new report from the US — which is a very different newspaper market, so the comparisons can be overstated — suggests newspapers need internet-based revenue growth of 30-50% to offset traditional revenue loss of 6-8%. Whatever the precise figures and the differences in the US, it illustrates the problem facing newspapers merely to maintain overall revenue.

The survey shows why that is going to become harder. The ANZ said in commentary yesterday that:

“In recent months there has been a significant divergence in job advertising trends on the internet and in newspapers; much more than usual. While we believe the technological factors driving the trend towards job advertising on the internet will continue gradually over the years ahead, there may be reasons to believe that current economic conditions in Australia are hastening this divergence. Most of the job creation in Australia is coming from mining, energy and infrastructure related activity. We believe these types of jobs are more likely to be advertised on the internet as these employers are appealing to a national labour market. The ANZ newspaper advertisements series is more likely to be skewed towards the services sector in the major cities.

“Over the past six months the so-called mining states of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory have seen newspaper ads remain broadly unchanged compared to an Australia-wide fall of about 10%. Newspaper job advertising in NSW and Victoria has fallen by around 15% over the same period.”

In other words, the ANZ reckons its going to get worse for the newspaper companies because it believes the jobs market has turned (the smoothing trend growth was 1.7% in February, the fourth successively monthly rise), but the major companies are not positioned to benefit from it. That’s bad news for Fairfax Media and News Limited, which have their major Australian newspaper properties based in NSW and Victoria (The SMH, Sun-Herald, Age and Sunday Age for Fairfax and The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph; the national papers, The AFR and The Australian, are run out of Sydney).

While it is right to be cautious about the current speed of the fall in newspaper job ads, the ANZ is saying that current growth make-up of the Australian economy is pushing more and more ads out of newspapers and onto the internet.

Some longer-term perspective: in February 2007, the 19,192 newspaper job ads were 7.1% of the total market, in February of this year, the 8256 were 4.2% of the total (smaller market).

And in February 2009, the jobs market was around the bottom of the slump caused by the GFC. The total jobs market had slumped 10.4% in the month to 161,583, with 153,059 internet job ads and 8524 in newspapers. That means that while monthly internet job ads grew 33,364 in the next three years, newspaper job ads fell 268. In other words, the number of job ads in February 2012 in our major newspapers was lower than at around the bottom of the post-GFC jobs slump in February 2009.

This is why digital media is a much bigger threat to newspaper longevity than the Fink’s recommendations. The newspapers better hope Labor and the mining magnates continue to war with each other. As it stands, mining industry ad campaigns are about the only growth area for newspapers.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey