The Argus was launched in Melbourne in June 1846, incorporating earlier papers. Though at first an anti-government populist paper, the Argus was by mid-century the voice of Victorian conservatism. Its editorials could be biting but it strove for fairness and accuracy in its news reporting. For years, the Argus charged more per copy than its great morning rival, the Age.
For decades, the proprietor was the Wilson and Mackinnon Trust, representing the families of early owners. Establishment of the tabloid Sun News-Pictorial in 1922 squeezed the paper in a newly crowded market. The firm lost financially by establishing the Star, a short-lived afternoon tabloid (1933–36). In 1937, the owners belatedly introduced news to the Argus front page, instead of classified advertisements, and floated a public company, The Argus and Australasian Limited. The unwieldy page size was later halved to a longish tabloid.
Though the company usually made a profit, financial results remained unsatisfactory. Most of the new shares were classified as preferential, and these were paid a regular dividend. However, payments on the ordinary shares—mostly held by trust family members—were meagre. The tight finances discouraged badly needed spending on development, a critical issue as the printing machinery aged.
In addition to the paper, the company owned some country commercial radio stations, and the Australasian (later Australasian Post) magazine, and used its plant for job printing. These operations were generally profitable.
A bold move after World War II to purchase state-of-the-art printing presses, with capacity for an innovative reader-friendly size and colour for photographs and advertisements, split the directors. In 1949, they sold the business to London’s Mirror Newspapers, publishers of the cheeky Fleet Street tabloid, the Daily Mirror.
Led by strong-minded chief executives, the two companies were uneasy marital partners. The Argus’s Sir Errol Knox had unnerved his board with his visionary expansion plans; the judgement of the Mirror’s H.G. Bartholomew, editor between the wars, became erratic as he aged. He bought the Argus without normal commercial scrutiny, and put Sydney Elliott, an inexperienced favourite from the Mirror, in charge of the Argus. Elliott clashed angrily with Knox—both had the title of joint managing director. Suddenly Knox died of a heart attack in October 1949, just three months after the sale.
Now in charge, Elliott began turning the Argus into a pro-Labor tabloid. Most of the pre-sale directors resigned, alarmed at the seeming recklessness of change. The new regime lost the confidence of Melbourne business and advertisers, made other enemies and, in the difficult post-war business conditions, incurred huge losses. The paper moved editorially and politically away from flirting with the ALP towards the middle ground, but during the erratic sudden changes had lost many of its financially better off A- and B-class readers, the most attractive to advertising. Overall circulation gradually increased, but was more widely spread around the community, and still only about a third that of the rival Sun News-Pictorial, though comparable with that of the Age.
In 1951, the London board dismissed both Bartholomew and Elliott. The paper continued as a lively mid-market, politically unaligned competitor to both the Age and the Sun News-Pictorial. Full colour was introduced in 1952—the first run-of-the-press newspaper colour in the world—but it had initial technical problems, which limited its advantage.
Circulation continued to increase, but was not enough to bring financial stability. Though the company returned to a modest profit in 1955, London sold it to the rival Herald and Weekly Times, provided the paper was closed down. The Argus closed on 19 January 1957. Both sales, but particularly the requirement for closure, have remained controversial, but Argus and Australasian company records have vanished.
The Argus Index (1846–58, 1870–79 and 1910–49) provided a ready guide to thousands of events over many decades, invaluable to researchers until the Argus was digitised by the National Library of Australia’s Trove. The Argus building, constructed in 1926 on the corner of La Trobe and Elizabeth Streets in Melbourne, is classified by the National Trust of Australia.
REF: J. Usher (ed.), The Argus (2008).
ROBERT MURRAY and JIM USHER