Will the Job Market Perk Up in 2004?

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By: Randy Dotinga

With the economy improving and analysts predicting growth in advertising revenue, 2004 might seem like a banner year for the newspaper job market. But if you’re feeling antsy in your cubicle, get used to it. While not many papers appear to have hiring freezes, it’s still pretty chilly out there, with few signs of immediate changes on the hiring front.

“It’s too soon to determine what impact those positive numbers will have,” said Kathy Pellegrino, recruitment editor at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. “Are these predictions reliable? Are they going to come true? There’s a little bit of wait-and-see.”

For the first few months of 2004, at least, the number of available jobs seems likely to stay stable at its current level — far from robust but not exactly dismal. Online job sites continue to list hundreds of positions at newspapers, although people looking for mid-level jobs at top papers may be out of luck.

At San Jose, Calif.-based Knight Ridder, the smaller and mid-sized newspapers seem to have the most openings, while things are still tight at larger papers, according to corporate recruiter Reginald Stuart. “The larger papers are making key hires or strategic hires, for top editors, for department heads and editors, but not rank-and-file troops.”

At the Detroit Free Press, for example, many positions in the features, education and business departments of the newsroom have gone unfilled. “There was never really a hiring freeze,” said Recruiting and Development Editor Joe Grimm. “In some cases, we would start looking for a person immediately after an opening was created. In other cases, we waited a while and in some cases we’re still waiting.”

The one bright spot in hiring is the expansion of several newspapers into the Internet and youth-oriented weekly publications. Just this week, Gannett Co. Inc. introduced a weekly newspaper in Indianapolis, coming on the heels of similar entertainment publications launched by the company in Louisville, Ky.; Cincinnati; Lansing, Mich.; and Boise, Idaho.

But other than new staffers for those publications, hiring at Gannett will remain “business as usual” for the foreseeable future, said spokeswoman Tara Connell. That means “limited.”

Newspaper officials said the only thing that could break the hiring logjam would be a big increase in help-wanted advertising. “It’s the part of advertising that’s really held newspapers back for the last 2-3 years, and it has still not come back very strongly,” said newspaper analyst John Morton.

But even if advertising goes up, newspapers may choose to plow any new revenues into profits instead of job growth, Morton cautioned. There’s another less-than-promising factor. “Most of those companies that did do layoffs early in the recession said at the time that they were unlikely to restore those cuts, that they were likely to be permanent,” Morton said.

When newspapers don’t create new positions and nobody outside the industry does much hiring, stagnation sets in. “It’s like a game of musical chairs,” said Pellegrino of the Sun-Sentinel. “When the music is playing and everyone’s moving around, that creates more opportunities. [Now], everybody’s in their seats and they want to keep the seats they had.”

But there’s still reason for hope. Even if newspapers don’t add new jobs to their employment rolls, a strong economy could add jobs on its own, wooing people away from the publishing industry. That perfect newspaper job may be out there, held by someone who’s about to find a new career in those want-ad pages.

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