The Canberra Times has been published in the national capital since 1926. Despite its relative low circulation, it is a quality broadsheet, with a thorough diet of local, regional, national and international news. It also provides extensive coverage of politics, public administration, business and sport, and literature, the arts and lifestyle issues. The paper’s market is skewed heavily towards the professional, managerial and administrative classes, which has led to higher advertising premiums.
The Canberra Times appeared first as a weekly from 3 September 1926, and became bi-weekly a few days before the opening of parliament at the new national capital on 8 May 1927. On 20 February 1928, it became a daily. The Canberra Times was initially a Shakespeare family affair. Thomas Mitchell Shakespeare was chairman of Federal Capital Press of Australia Ltd. His eldest son, Arthur, was managing editor, Clarence was a reporter, and Jack and Bill managed and operated the presses and the business side of the paper. T.M. Shakespeare had owned the Grafton Argus and the Lachlander (Condobolin), but increasingly was focused on managing the affairs of the NSW Country Press Association, a news-sharing and syndication service for rural and regional dailies.
Shakespeare was an ardent federalist who understood the special opportunities and challenges of the national capital. The design and the ambitions of the federal architects were for a developing city that would contain legislators, ministers, senior public servants, a military and diplomatic establishment, and ultimately a university. The Shakespeares wanted and expected their newspaper to be a champion of the people of Canberra and of the federal ideal, and of taking a national, rather than a sectional or sectarian or states-based, approach to the resolution of political issues.
However, the growth and development of Canberra slowed substantially with the Great Depression and World War II, and its aftermath. Consequently, the paper struggled. It was not until 1955, when Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies reinvigorated the old plans and ambitions for the capital, that the paper—now a tabloid—began to prosper. Soon serious reinvestment in plant and equipment was needed, and there was no succeeding generation wanting to take over. Major media interests were starting to see the commercial and political benefits of publishing in Canberra. In 1962, Shakespeare agreed that John Fairfax & Sons could buy the paper on his death, or when it was clear someone was planning a rival.
That challenge came from a young Rupert Murdoch, in the form of the Australian, which would be edited, prepared and printed in Canberra, with plates transmitted to the other capitals. Shakespeare triggered the agreement with Fairfax, which determined that the new newspaper had to be strangled at birth by a far better resourced and invigorated Canberra Times. J.D. Pringle, a distinguished British journalist who had worked on the Sydney Morning Herald, was appointed managing editor, with the existing editor, David Bowman, remaining in this position.
Pringle was soon to return to Sydney and the Herald, and he took Bowman with him. Under the next editor, John Allan, the paper focused on covering the public administration as well as politics. It was to be some 20 years before British and American newspapers, starting with the London Times, began such a round. Allan also pioneered a regular corrections column. The newspaper was also developing specialist reporters, such as Bruce Juddery, David Solomon, Peter Samuel, Warwick Bracken and Gay Davidson (later to be the first female chief political correspondent in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery), as well as making use of its access to academic expertise at the Australian National University. The newspaper was generally regarded at the time as a ‘subs’ paper’, in the sense that around two-thirds of its material came from news services and outside sources other than staff.
Allan left for London in 1972 and was replaced by Ian Mathews. The paper grew through the Whitlam years, but a local recession caused by a slowdown in federal expenditure from 1975 saw it become involved in efforts to broaden the economic base of the territory. It also reported on, and advocated for, the push for ACT self-government.
In 1978, the Canberra Times became a seven-day-a-week newspaper, with the publication of the Sunday Canberra Times. Crispin Hull, the initial Sunday editor, was later to become editor of the whole publication for seven years, until he was replaced by David Armstrong— previously editor of the Australian—in 1992. Through Hull’s editorship, his deputy was Jack Waterford, who became editor in 1995.
In 1989, the paper became the victim of a succession struggle inside the larger John Fairfax Group, with Warwick Fairfax Junior selling off parts of the Fairfax empire to partly finance his takeover. The Canberra Times was sold for $100 million, along with a string of Fairfax magazines, to Kerry Packer. Packer had no real interest in acquiring the Canberra Times—indeed, he on-sold it to Rupert Murdoch. But Murdoch was told by the then Trade Practices Commission (now the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) that it would not allow him to increase his interests in Australian metropolitan newspapers. Packer held on to his interest for a year or so, then sold it to Kerry Stokes.
Stokes invested in new-generation colour presses and state-of-the-art computer production. He appointed veteran journalist Michelle Grattan as editor, but she was ultimately dismissed—not by Stokes personally, but by the managing director—and Jack Waterford was appointed editor. In 1997, Stokes sold the paper for $150 million to Rural Press Limited, which began to reduce editorial costs.
At the peak of its readership in the mid-1990s, it was said that 85 per cent of all Canberra people aged 14 or over read a typical Saturday issue. Coalition Prime Minister John Howard described the Canberra Times as ‘like the ABC in print’.
Michael Stevens became editor in 2002, and focused on local news, earning a Walkley Award for the paper’s coverage of the 2003 Canberra bushfires. He was replaced by Mark Baker, then Peter Fray and most recently Rod Quinn. The Canberra Times now has a heavy internet and social media presence. It is increasingly focused at Canberra-centric news rather than national or international coverage.
The Canberra Times rejoined Fairfax Media in 2007 when John B. Fairfax parlayed his Rural Press holding into what was in effect a reverse takeover of the much larger Herald and Age newspapers. In 2013, the newspaper had a circulation of 26,153 on weekdays, 40,475 on Saturdays and 26,138 on Sundays. The Canberra Times has access, past its own resources, to the output of journalists from the Herald and the Age, as well as extensive news services— Australian and international.
REFs: Canberra Times, 3 and 20 September 1976 and 25 September 2006.