BUSINESS AND FINANCE REPORTING
Business and finance reporting in Australia is similar to that in many Western capitalist democracies—for example, the acquisition of Dow Jones by News Corporation in 2007 led to the Australian carrying material from the Wall Street Journal and the company’s newswires, while in 2012 the Australian Financial Review (AFR) entered into a content-sharing agreement with the United Kingdom’s Financial Times (FT).
The transnational nature of business and finance reporting has its foundations in the expansion of global communications in the second half of the 19th century, as the electric telegraph was used primarily to transmit stock prices and market quotations. Australia was enfolded into a British imperial press system, and was declared ‘Reuters territory’ from 1859.
The systematic application of journalism to business and finance information was evident from the middle of the 19th century. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser published trade and commercial information. In its first editorial in 1831, the Sydney Herald promised a focus on the ‘commercial ... relations of Australia’. The Sydney Gazette concentrated on banking, and the Australian (Sydney, 1824–48) on trade. By the 1850s, papers were also publishing market and commodity prices, shares listings, banking and company data, industry intelligence and ‘commercial news’, as well as advertisements for stocks and shares. The Daily Commercial News (1891–99) specialised in shipping, trade, transport and logistics. By 1901, the Melbourne Argus was publishing columns with headings such as ‘Mining intelligence and stock and share market’.
Newspapers responded to wealthier Australians investing in joint stock companies, saving with banks, taking out insurance and trading on state stock exchanges. In a review of journalism published at Federation, the Sydney Morning Herald noted the existence of ‘publications devoted to one or other of the chief interests of the colony—mining, agriculture, the pastoral industry, shipping, banking’. Almost 30 years later, the reporting of trade, transport, markets, tourism, mining and agriculture appeared throughout both the Herald and the Argus.
The situation did not change over the next 25 years, even though newspapers began to publish dedicated sections.
However, boom–bust cycles, scandals and collapses, and the reliance of the Australian economy on inward investment from Britain and state-led economic development were problematic. The business section of the Bulletin (1880–2008) was sceptically headed ‘Business, Robbery, etc.’ until the 1960s. A new concentration on business journalism emerged as cheaper newsprint became more globally available and advertising boomed after World War II. Subsequently, business in its broadest sense became ‘big news’, and business journalism a major growth area.
Not surprisingly, at the launch of the Australian in 1964, the owners, News Limited, announced that ‘Reporting business will be big business’, while News Limited declared that ‘business is an important factor in our daily lives’. The Australian catered for the emerging urban elite, not interested in the more technical coverage of the specialist AFR, which was transformed in the 1960s—first from a localised weekly to a bi-weekly publication in 1961 and then to a national daily in 1963.
In 1971, the Australian recruited specialist staff from other papers and established publishing arrangements with the FT and the South African Financial Mail to launch Finance Week; it lasted only eight months. Business in the Australian was skewed towards human interest, profiles of people and companies, and burgeoning industries. Australian business reporting had changed from the dry noting of directors’ reports and company results to the presentation of entertaining stories. All the same, prior to 1970 there was little penetrating reporting of business.
The Macquarie Network moved commercial radio into more serious finance coverage. In the mid-1960s, 2GB Sydney initiated a nightly AFR commentary by Michael Baume, while in the 1970s, 6IX Perth introduced shows targeted at small businesses. When revamping the finance component of its drive program, Sundown Rundown, 2GB looked for a balance between finance journalism and investment advice. David Koch went on to have his own nightly show, Money Talk.
Media corporations themselves became objects of business reporting. The formation of media entities as global corporate enterprises was founded in part on the expansion of business advertising, which underpinned the growth in business journalism. The spread of shareholding completed a circuit in which advertising funded business journalism, which attracted readers, who were ‘sold’ to advertisers, who recruited them as investors. On the other hand, a resurgence of investigative journalism led to exposés of corporations, financiers and business practices. More popular papers began to adopt a position focused more on readers’ interests.
A change occurred in the 1980s, with deregulation, liberalisation and privatisation. New specialist publications appeared, including Australian Business (1980–91) and Business Review Weekly (1981–2013), as well as Personal Investment (est. 1983) and Shares (1996), which later merged. In 1988, the John Fairfax Group established a trade publishing group, Australian Financial Press, jointly with David Koch. Television programs took off, including Business Sunday (1986–2006) and Money (1993–2002), hosted by Paul Clitheroe, on the Nine Network; Kochie’s Business Builders (2007– ), hosted by Koch, on the Seven Network; and Lateline Business (now The Business, 2006– ) on the ABC.
Journalism in the 1980s addressed personal finance and property, and was obsessed by the idea of a business ‘boom’. One former editor estimated that the number of business journalists in Australia trebled in less than a decade.
High-profile instances of damaging and even illegal business practices and corporate misconduct, as well as cyclical market fluctuations, intensified criticisms of the deficiencies of business journalism. Such was the dissatisfaction with the performance of business journalists in the 1960s mining boom that a subsequent Australian Senate inquiry led to them having to register their financial interests. Two decades later, more than a quarter of Australian business journalists believed that making personal financial gains from privileged access to information remained widespread. Nearly half felt there was a bias in reporting in favour of business, and a third said they would be more inclined to censor themselves when reporting on their own media owners. In another survey conducted in the 1990s, a half of business journalists reported experiencing improper managerial interference.
The Herald’s Michael West blamed a failure to winkle out ‘greed, leverage, risk, suspect corporate governance and complex corporate structures’ on journalists partly on contemporary conditions where there were ‘Too many press releases, too little time, too many promoters and PR people in the world ... [and] too little regulatory oversight’.
Print journalist Alan Kohler translated his work into a brand, founding the online investment newsletter the Eureka Report in 2005 and co-founding the Business Spectator website in 2007; the company he headed was sold to News Limited in 2012 for $30 million. Kohler remained as editor-in-chief, and also continues to work for ABC Television.
The uptake of digital technology, and particularly the internet, ensured that business and finance journalism became more transnational. By 2009, the Economist and Forbes were both reaching more readers in the Asia Pacific region online than in their print editions, and the FT had almost as many.
REFs: J. Henningham, ‘Characteristics and Attitudes of Australia’s Finance Journalists’, Economic Analysis and Policy 27(1) (1997); J. Kitchener, ‘Investigative Business Journalism in the Age of the Internet’, Australian Journalism Review, 27(1) (2005); J. Schultz, Reporting Business (1992).