Major print media companies will take a further revenue hit with the government abandoning its long-standing commitment to advertising Public Service and statutory appointment jobs in newspapers.

On Tuesday, Finance Minister Penny Wong and Special Minister of State Gary Gray announced that $550 million in savings over four years had been identified in Public Service efficiencies. They included $2 million per year from moving public service job advertising online.

Behind the savings lies a major internal policy switch quietly rolled out on July 1 this year.

Traditionally, public service job ads are advertised in the Commonwealth Gazette, a once paper publication distributed weekly across departments (often inscribed with warnings of urgency such as “pass like lightning!”) long since moved online, and in newspapers most likely to generate interest from potential applicants — that is, the national titles The Australian and The Australian Financial Review, and the local paper for Canberra bureaucrats, The Canberra Times.

That this meant a direct government subsidy to loss-making The Australian, the most viscerally Labor-hating media outlet outside Alan Jones’ mouth, annoyed many Labor MPs once they returned to government.

The extent of public service reliance on newspaper advertising was known to irk Labor Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner, alleged to have developed the habit of complaining to public service chiefs about the size of ads. Under Tanner, guidelines were introduced in 2009 that aimed to reduce the size and cost of recruitment ads in newspapers.

Under those guidelines, the government significantly reduced spending on newspaper job ads, cutting its overall job ad spending by about $30 million a year, with newspapers the biggest losers. Under the 2009 guidelines, recruitment advertising spending fell to $15 million a year.

That will now be further reduced because from July 1, advertising in major newspapers was outright banned. The government’s new policy for non-campaign advertising “assists agencies to achieve value for money in recruitment advertising by:

a. Mandating the use of online recruitment advertising;
b. Restricting the use of major daily newspapers for recruitment advertising, unless paragraph 3.4 applies;
c. Mandating maximum sizes and placement of recruitment advertisements in limited print media (such as regional, periodic publications or specialist media such as Indigenous); and
d. Mandating that colour must not be used in print advertisements.”

The only exception to the ban on major daily newspapers is when an agency head approves requests to advertise for hard to fill positions such as SES jobs or “target groups”. But there’s a specific requirement that other positions can’t be exempted.

The requirement applies to all public service departments and agencies under the Financial Management and Accountability Act, while the other kind of agency, Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act bodies that are more independent, are “encouraged to comply”.

The impact of the new policy is relatively muted given the lower level of APS recruitment currently being undertaken. Fairfax and News Ltd may also be able to pick up revenue from online job ads, although the guidelines indicate a preference for general or specialised recruitment websites. (We asked editors of The Oz, The AFR and The Crimes for comment but nobody got back before deadline.)

And in an important sense, it merely reinforces a trend that has already seen advertising revenue from governments slashed for major newspapers. But the federal government was a reliable advertiser for newspapers, which could always be relied on for ad revenue even when the economy had soured. Like so much else in newspaper ad revenue, that’s now ancient history.

Peter Fray

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