One of the ironies of a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic is that, just as the public needs accurate and timely information about what's happening in their community, the news sources which deliver that information are facing an economic downturn.
Ballarat's 3BA radio station is no different. Regional media, including multiple regional newspapers, have taken a hit in advertising revenue as people isolate themselves during the pandemic and businesses shut their doors.
Yesterday the station began issuing redundancies to staff. News journalist Gabrielle Hodson and program director Garrath Cockerell have been made redundant, with Radio Ballarat general manager John Fitzgibbon telling staff in an email that Grant Broadcasters (the owners of 3BA and 50 other local stations across Australia) said the implementation was regrettable.
"This was hard thing to do as Grant Broadcasters as a family business has always avoided this type of restructuring," the email reads.
"Unfortunately with revenues down so much and suddenly, we have been left with no choice but to cut costs. We are looking at other measures to save costs and this has included Senior Managers collectively offering a 25% pay reduction which has been accepted."
The cuts mean a loss of local radio news bulletins for Ballarat as well, with just four now being produced between 6am and 9am.
Bulletins from 10am to 6pm are no longer produced in Ballarat. Journalists were also expected to post their own stories online.
It's a devastating loss for timely information delivery across a very large chunk of western and central Victoria, says Gabrielle Hodson.
"If we had a story at 11.50am, for example, we could still squeeze it in at noon," she says.
"We could also squeeze breaking news in between songs. The vast majority of music shifts now are going to be pre-recorded so this will be impossible."
The redundancies come as some of the state's oldest regional newspapers close, including the Mildura's Sunraysia Daily, the Yarram Standard and the Loddon Times. As a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Nine Network also cut regional news services in the state.
The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance issued a statement saying the federal government should immediately unlock $40 million in funding to keep regional and rural newspapers alive during the coronavirus crisis.
'The money has already been allocated to a Regional and Small Publishers Jobs and Innovation Package, but must be repurposed into a survival fund to prevent local publishers from closing their doors, an MEAA spokesperson said, adding the union had written to Communications Minister Paul Fletcher urging him to release the money..
"This is a time when the public needs accurate and factual information about what is happening, and people naturally turn to local, national and international media expecting this," said MEAA Media federal president Marcus Strom.
"Local publications in particular are lifelines for their communities; they know them intimately. We are concerned about what will fill the void left by their closure. In such a vacuum, misinformation and 'fake news' can flourish.
"While most of the rest of us are locked in our homes, many journalists will still be out risking their health to inform the community.
"This is an essential service, and governments should be doing all they can to ensure that it can continue. But newspaper proprietors must also do their part. They must explore alternative avenues to keep their communities informed rather than take the drastic and unacceptable step of shutting down publications, as has begun happening in regional Victoria.
"We understand the financial pressures publishers are experiencing and offer our help to negotiate ways of easing this burden, but closing the doors at this time would be a betrayal of their workforce and a betrayal of their communities."