emma alberici
Emma Alberici (Image: AAP/Richard Wainwright)

Facing an $84 million cut over three years, the ABC has had to make tough decisions to slash its budget. 

One of those decisions is to propose cutting the position of chief economics correspondent — held by Emma Alberici, who’s angered the Coalition in the past — and two business reporters.

But it’s a bad time to cut economics coverage, University of NSW economics Professor Richard Holden told Crikey.

“It’s the first recession in three decades and it’s a very unusual recession which could go on for a very long time,” he said.

From trade wars to policy debates, breakouts to border issues, there’s been a flood of news stories to cover and explain to audiences.

“It’s really easy to underestimate how important it is to provide a clear cut-through of issues going on,” he said.

And there’s also an audience for that content: news director Gaven Morris told staff in an email that business stories on digital has almost tripled in the past two years at the ABC. 

Dr Lindy Edwards, a former government economic adviser and press gallery journalist-turned University of NSW researcher told Crikey tensions abroad made economic coverage incredibly important.

“Both in the economic recession and the changing geostrategic context, with conflicts in China and the likely economic effects that come with that, it has huge implications for lots of jobs.”

Edwards said Australians needed paywall-free coverage with foreign correspondents providing information straight from the source.

“The ability to be covering that in a sophisticated and nuanced way, with news directly from the region, is more important now than it has been in 30 years,” Edwards said. 

Economist and Crikey contributor Jason Murphy said recessions caused a surge of business stories.

“[The cuts] seem short-sighted,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of business stories in the next 18 months of vital public importance.”

Two important kinds of stories emerge during a recession, he said: business malfeasance and job losses.

“There’ll be a lot of really interesting things need to be dug into,” he said.

Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia chief executive officer Peter Strong said diversity of information — especially local news — was incredibly important to guide people’s decision making. 

“From an overall perspective of managing companies if there’s less information, there’s less certainty,” he said. 

“We really need news now, especially with the huge unemployment problem … We need to make sure we get the right news.” 

While Australia does have business coverage elsewhere — from business sections in most papers, to The Australian Financial Review — RMIT media and communications senior lecturer Dr Alex Wake told Crikey that simply switching to other sources may not always be an option.

“The advertising model of funding journalism is well and truly dead,” she said. “The public service broadcaster, the ABC, and also SBS, provide comprehensive national coverage which is the envy of many liberal democracies. There are only 11 to 13 similarly-funded broadcasters in the world.”

The changes to the ABC’s business reporting team are part of its five-year strategy announced this week, which proposes how the public broadcaster will meet the ongoing reduction in its budget. About 250 jobs are expected to be cut under the proposed changes.

An ABC spokeswoman told Crikey the proposed changes were not final, and that the ABC did not want to cut any roles or people: “Under this proposal, the ABC would have a strong business team of around 15 dedicated business journalists working across TV, radio and digital as well as producing specialist program The Business.”

She added economic coverage — including the economic impact of COVID-19 — extended to local, state and international teams.

“The ABC’s coverage of economics and finance isn’t confined to the National Newsroom. There are business specialists in our current affairs teams, on 7PM and across other areas.”

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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