The Age was founded in Melbourne during the Victorian gold rush, first appearing on 17 October 1854. Its founders were Francis and Henry Cooke, merchants and non-conformist Protestants who came to Victoria from New Zealand. The new morning daily was a creature of its times, a paper of politics concerned with liberal rights and animated by social questions. Its early tone owed much to editors David Blair, a teetotal Irish Protestant, and Ebenezer Syme, a one-time Unitarian minister. Its religiosity soon faded, but its interest in politics and social reform endured, as did its sense that it was an independent voice in Victorian affairs. However, the new paper had been rushed into print provisionally funded at a time when gold yields had faltered. It struggled to compete with the established Argus and Melbourne Morning Herald, and its future was not secured until Syme’s brother, David, took control in 1860.
David Syme was a post-Millian liberal and canny capitalist who advocated reform and responsible development. Assisted by able editors such as James Harrison, A.L. Windsor and (Gottlieb) Frederick Schuler, he cemented the Age’s influence partly through his friend- ship with Alfred Deakin, the liberal politician and erstwhile Age journalist who became prime minister in 1903. At the heart of Syme’s program was protectionism, a policy that tied tariffs and subsidies for local industry to fair pay and working conditions, and formed part of the ‘Australian settlement’ after Federation.
Geoffrey Syme succeeded his father as editorial manager in 1908, continuing the paper’s commitment to social liberal causes. L.V. Biggs followed Schuler as editor in 1926. Circulation peaked at more than 150,000 between 1915 and 1919, falling to 123,500 by 1928 as the revitalised Herald and Weekly Times gained ascendancy and economic depression loomed. Until World War II, the Age’s language and look remained old-fashioned; on 29 December 1941, news finally pushed classified advertising off the front page. Yet inter-war politicians who dismissed the Age did so at their peril. In the 1920s, the paper encouraged Victorian rebel liberals and supported Labor premier Edmond (Ned) Hogan. It also bitterly and effectively opposed the Bruce Coalition government’s plans to abolish the federal machinery of industrial arbitration. The paper was an early supporter of Victorian conservative (Sir) Robert Menzies, particularly under H.A.M. Campbell, editor from 1939.
Geoffrey’s passing in 1942 extinguished the tone of indignant zeal synonymous with the Syme name. The Age’s transformation was completed by post-war commercial reform that turned the business into a public company. Campbell served as deputy chairman as well as editor until his death in 1959. He was a personal admirer of both Menzies and Labor’s John Curtin, and placed great store on fair journalism. His Age supported Menzies’ 1951 referendum to ban the Communist Party, but also launched the left-wing historian Manning Clark as a commentator in the mainstream press.
When Menzies described the Age as his favourite newspaper, it merely confirmed for some observers that editorial sclerosis had set in. David Syme’s great-grandson, Ranald Macdonald, became managing director in 1964. He installed Graham Perkin as editor in place of Campbell’s successor, Keith Sinclair, guaranteeing him editorial independence. The result was a journalistic renaissance that became a touchstone of the Age’s identity. The paper undid its Liberal Party entanglements and returned to its crusading roots. It became a natural home for cartoonists of a social and political bent, including Les Tanner, Bruce Petty, Michael Leunig, Ron Tandberg and John Spooner. Circulation surged.
After Perkin’s untimely death in 1975, a series of editors followed in quick succession: Les Carlyon, Greg Taylor, and distinguished British journalist Michael Davie. Most notable was Creighton Burns, who had added intellectual gloss to Perkin’s Age. As editor (1981–89), Burns campaigned for the introduction of freedom of information legislation, and ignited one of the biggest political and legal controversies of the late 20th century by publishing the ‘Age Tapes’, transcripts of illegal phone taps by NSW police.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the Age evolved into an urbane paper in which women writers figured significantly. At its best, it was a mirror of the world and of Melbourne’s distinctive politics, culture, sport and humour. Its large sections, including Green Guide, Epicure and Accent, contributed much to its lively, prosperous character. In September 1981, the paper’s average daily circulation (Monday–Saturday) peaked at 251,178.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Age was battered by ownership changes, financial recession, circulation pressures, and severe tensions between management, editors and journalists. John Fairfax & Sons’ friendly takeover of the paper in 1983 led gradually to increased sharing of resources with the Sydney Morning Herald and also exposed the Melbourne daily to its new parent’s ownership turmoil after 1987. Age staff responded robustly, intermittently reviving a public campaign to ‘Maintain Your Age’.
For almost two decades, there had been a comfortable alignment between the progressive values of the Age and successive Liberal and Labor state governments. But the paper’s failure to define Victorian Labor’s unravelling economic management in the late 1980s contributed to its conflict with combative Liberal leader Jeff Kennett. Within a month of Kennett’s landslide election victory in October 1992, the paper changed editors; under Alan Kohler, it became a site of struggle between neo-liberal reformers and supporters of the paper’s traditional meliorism.
The Age ran through three editors (Michael Smith, Kohler and Bruce Guthrie) between 1989 and 1997. The paper’s last significant circulation milestones were achieved during this period of editorial instability.
The Sunday Age was launched in August 1989 with Steve Harris as editor, and thrived. It produced two women editors, Jill Baker (1995–98) and Gay Alcorn (2008–12). Harris was publisher and editor-in-chief of the Age and the Sunday Age from 1997 to 2001. He was succeeded as editor-in-chief by Greg Hywood (2001–03), then Michael Gawenda (Age editor and associate publisher since 1997), Andrew Jaspan (2004–08), Paul Ramadge (2008–12) and Andrew Holden (2012– ).
In 1995, the Age became the first major Australian newspaper to put news online. In 1999, plans for a state-of-the-art printing plant at Tullamarine were unveiled. Its landmark site at 250 Spencer Street was put up for sale, and in December 2009 the newspaper’s offices moved to Media House at 655 Collins Street. By this time, the media battlefield was being redrawn by the ascendancy of digital media and the global financial crisis.
In 2011, Hywood—who had re-emerged as Fairfax Media’s chief executive—signalled that the publisher was focused on a digital future. In June 2012, the company announced 1900 voluntary redundancies and the planned closure of its Tullamarine and Chullora printing plants. On one dramatic day, Paul Ramadge and his Sydney counterparts resigned. Many distinguished journalists subsequently left the Age, including its long-time political editor Michelle Grattan, but the newspaper continued its strong commitment to investigative journalism.
As Fairfax rationalised its marketing and distribution of print editions, driving readers towards digital versions, average sales of the printed Age plummeted to 144,277 (Mon- day–Friday, March 2013). As predicted, digital sales rose dramatically after the introduction of a paywall, but by December 2013 not even 131,000 paid-for print editions were reaching readers (Monday–Friday).
In Canberra, the paper ceased to be available for home delivery on the day of publication. This, along with dramatically increased sharing of Fairfax copy and editorial resources, and integration of the metropolitan print and online operations, blurred the once-distinct outlines of the Age’s editorial identity.
From 4 March 2013, the weekday editions of the Age were converted to ‘compact’ (tabloid) format. A month later, the company announced that it was integrating the Age and other newspapers into a new division, Australian Publishing Media. The reorganisation confirmed the ascendancy of the Fairfax brand at the expense of its once talismanic mastheads.
The weekend editions of the Age went tabloid a year later. By May 2014, the Age’s presses at Tullamarine were silenced, and the paper was being printed at Ballarat.
REFs: S. Nolan, ‘The Age and the Young Menzies: A Chapter in Victorian Liberalism’ (PhD thesis, 2010); J. Tidey, The Last Syme (1998).