This chain of suburban newspapers mixes free weekly tabloids with a free daily newspaper as part of a network of 20 publications that covers Sydney and the NSW central coast; its publications have a circulation of 1.21 million a week.
Cumberland’s recent history is built on Rupert Murdoch’s aggressive entry to the Australian newspaper market, which triggered corporate rivalry with the Packer and Fairfax families. So significant was Murdoch’s initial investment in Cumberland that it was seen as a pioneering suburban publisher during the 1960s. Yet the Cumberland name also has a rich history in colonial New South Wales. The group’s antecedents belong to the Parramatta Chronicle and Cumberland General Advertiser, which began on 30 December 1843. Although Benjamin Isaacs had published the short-lived Parramatta Courier earlier in the year, Community Newspapers of Australia celebrates the Parramatta Chronicle, founded by Edmund Mason, as Australia’s first community title. This publication offered a combination of local and general news. Within two years, Mason had sold it to B.E. Bailey and the paper was renamed the Cumberland Times and Advertiser, a title that remained until its closure in 1911.
The next iteration of the name was the Cumberland Argus and Fruit Growers Advocate, a twice-weekly, paid-for title that covered a vast stretch of suburban and agricultural land from Liverpool to Dural. In 1933, a young Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Earl White, established the Parramatta Advertiser; three years later, he formed Cumberland Newspapers Pty Ltd. The company expanded over almost three decades, and was making about a £70,000 annual profit when Murdoch, acting through an intermediary, paid White £1 million for it in February 1960. The purchase gave Murdoch a network of 24 publications that spread from Hurstville in Sydney’s south to Hornsby in the north and the Blue Mountains in the west.
Murdoch’s arrival triggered a fierce round of rivalry with the Packer and Fairfax newspaper groups. The two established groups formed a strategic alliance against the newcomer in the form of Suburban Publications Pty Ltd, with the intention of using the Sydney Daily Mirror printing presses to publish more suburban papers. The problem was that Murdoch had bought the Mirror just three months after taking over Cumberland, and the Mirror presses were no longer available. It took a midnight brawl on 7 June 1961 between Clyde and Kerry Packer and Murdoch supporters over access to the alternative print capacity of the Anglican newspaper to help settle the issue. This legendary melee would later be dramatised in The Paper Man (1990) and Power Games: The Packer–Murdoch War (2013) mini-series.
Even though Murdoch technically won the contest, the two companies lost thousands of pounds before a truce was called in February 1962 that saw the Sydney suburban newspaper map carved up and Cumberland controlling the printing of all the city’s suburban papers. There was only one place left where Cumberland and Suburban Publications had rival papers: Bankstown. Murdoch recalled later just how bruising the competition had been: ‘They started papers against us in every suburb of Sydney. It was a real bloody battle. But they found it much more expensive than they thought.’
By 1974, Cumberland had 22 papers and, alongside the Packer and Fairfax interests, dominated the market. Cumberland’s flagship was the Parramatta Advertiser, which at the time was Sydney’s largest single-issue suburban paper, regularly running to more than 100 pages. In 1978, Murdoch offloaded five Victorian suburban newspapers and Cumberland’s Dandenong typesetting business to the publisher of the Age, David Syme, as part of the shakeout in the Victorian suburban market. The next growth surge occurred in 1987 when News Limited bought the Herald and Weekly Times, which brought the Manly Daily, five papers on the NSW central coast and one in Sydney’s inner west into the Cumberland stable.
The group did not grow again until it took over the suburban newspapers owned by the Federal Publishing Company in 2007. The Cumberland group now had 28 separate mastheads and published 34 editions a week. But after a rationalisation of titles in the intervening years, the new-look NewsLocal was born. As with all News Limited titles, Cumberland embraced the online news revolution and steadily built its profile to have its home page ranked among the nation’s top news and weather websites for traffic in 2010. The organisation was re-branded in 2011 as NewsLocal. The chain was based at Parramatta until 2013, when some of its major titles moved back to the News Corp Australia headquarters in Surry Hills.
REFs: B. Griffen-Foley, The House of Packer (1999); R.B. Walker, The Newspaper Press in NSW, 1803–1920 (1976).