Will print be ousted by e-recruitment?

A government plan to launch a network of public sector job ad websites threatens to cut off a significant lifeline for the press. By Branwell Johnson

Recruitment advertising is a vital revenue lifeline for national and regional press, but competition for this lucrative business is about to get tougher. A source of increasing anxiety for newspapers is the Government directive to shift more services – including public sector recruitment – online. This has the potential to cut a considerable hole in newspapers’ advertising revenue.

The Guardian is the acknowledged leader for public sector recruitment advertising and has just announced a major overhaul of its G3 sections. The supplements, such as Society and Education, depend heavily on public sector advertising spend and their revamp will include improvements to classified sections’ layout and accessibility as well as an overall redesign and enhanced editorial content.

The Newspaper Society, which represents the regional press, is lobbying to make sure the issue of recruitment advertising is on the Phillis Committee’s agenda, alongside editorial issues. The Phillis Committee is an independent body chaired by Guardian Media Group chief executive Bob Phillis, formed to discuss government communications and the press.

Government investment in the public sector has increased – 157,000 jobs were created in the public administration, education and health sectors in the year to March 2003 (Office of National Statistics). Spending on recruitment has increased steadily over recent years and experts estimate that £500m was spent on it this year. Media owners are keen to grab a share of that growing pot, hence the launch of The Times’ Public Agenda section, published Tuesday, the day before Society, in April.

The government directive, issued in 2000 through the Office of the e-Envoy, calls for 80 per cent of its services, from buying a TV licence to finding a job, to be “e-enabled” by 2005. Some departments are further down this line than others. For instance, NHS Online has a sophisticated recruitment section for the healthcare community.

Private company Jobsgopublic has been given the majority of the local public sector online business, with 460 individual organisation contracts for recruitment advertising. The company also develops branded websites for local authorities and is the favoured partner of the Employers’ Organisation, the local authority-funded body that oversees recruitment issues. A spokeswoman for the organisation says: “There is a definite move away from traditional advertising to online.”

Jobsgopublic co-director Richard Tyrie

says: “Over a quite short period of time we have secured a significant chunk of public sector advertising revenue. We have a lot of clients that do not advertise in the press – it’s an increasing trend.”

The drive to go online has already caused consternation in the ranks of dedicated health sector magazines, and the Periodical Publishers Association has made representations to the e-Envoy Andrew Pindar to make the Government aware of the impact its plans will have on external businesses.

Guardian advertising director Stuart Taylor denies the overhaul of the G3 sections is a defensive measure in the face of a government push to online and points out that last week’s Society section (September 3) was 160 pages – the biggest to date. All ads are replicated online at The Guardian’s Society website. However, Taylor adds: “This [drive to online] is part of wider change in the recruitment industry and you’d have to have been living under a rock to not see this coming. Every employer wants to spend less on recruitment. I don’t think it’s specific to the public sector.”

Society supplement publisher Benjamin Wegg-Prosser says newspaper supplements will always be important as readers enjoy browsing, looking at jobs in private and reading the corresponding editorial that explores sector issues. In addition, advertisers want to use newspaper ads to build their brand profile.

Patricia Kill, project manager for the Times’ Public Agenda, adds that not everyone has a computer and newspapers attract a greater diversity of potential candidates. “Public sector jobs need as wide a platform as possible,” she says.

Newspaper Society director David Newall echoes Wegg-Prosser’s comments on the environment in which ads appear being important: “The regional press, with its high level of trust, is a very good vehicle for the Government to use from the point of view of paid advertising.”

Tyrie points out that the Jobsgopublic site allows greater user interactivity as jobseekers can write a description of the kind of post and salary they want and then receive relevant vacancies. The website also carries all relevant information for each vacancy, including application forms, thus saving on time and cost of dispatching information packs to interested candidates.

He adds: “It’s mainly the candidates who are the driving force behind these changes – using the online process is easier and quicker for them. We live in a 24/7 world and people’s expectations of fast service are higher.”

A spokeswoman for the Office of the e-Envoy says: “The Government has a duty to the taxpayer to get value for money in all its work and this includes recruitment. We are working closely with the newspaper and magazine industry and the Department of Trade and Industry, which sponsors the PPA, to discuss the implications of online recruitment advertising.”

But ultimately, as The Guardian’s Taylor puts it, the Government “does not owe newspapers a living” and they will have to prove their worth to maintain their share of taxpayers’ money devoted to public sector recruitment advertising.

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