One of the Australia’s most important provincial newspapers, the Illawarra Mercury has been defined by parochialism and localism since its foundation in October 1855 by Thomas Garrett (1830–91).
Initially a weekly, the Mercury cost sixpence, and had a print run of 200. Garrett had pooled his resources with W.F. Cahill, who left after three months, to be replaced in 1856 by Thomas’s father, John, a Primitive Methodist. By 1856 the Mercury had become a six-column broadsheet and was distributed to Dapto, Jamberoo, Kiama and Shoalhaven by express coach.
Involvement in community affairs and politics has characterised Mercury proprietors. John Garrett was elected Wollongong’s first mayor in 1859 and the editor, John Curr, was elected Wollongong’s first town clerk. Garret’s son, Thomas, was also a politician.
Thomas took over the paper in 1862, and soon formed a partnership with Archibald Campbell, before selling out to Joseph Hart in 1867. Campbell was the sole owner from 1883 until his death in 1903; he was elected Member for Illawarra in 1891.
In 1888 the Mercury was a tri-weekly of four pages, which featured a weekly serial. By 1901, it was published twice weekly. On Campbell’s death in 1903, his wife, Margaret, assumed control until Shellharbour local Edward Allen purchased the paper in 1905 and improved the news content. He was elected the Member for Illawarra in 1904, continuing a trend.
An Irishman, Standish R. Musgrave, bought the Mercury from Allen in 1911 and ran it until his death in 1943. He assumed the editorship, increased sports coverage and published an edition each Friday. Soon after becoming managing director of the newly formed Illawarra Newspaper Co. Ltd in 1919, Musgrave also purchased the Bulli Times and Port Kembla Pilot. By 1932 the Mercury had competition from 2WL, established in 1931. Wilfrid S. Musgrave succeeded his father as managing director and editor. In 1950, he converted the Mercury to a daily, a mark of modernity for a provincial centre, and changed the masthead to the Illawarra Daily Mercury.
The Musgraves were active members of the New South Wales Country Press Association for more than 40 years. They mixed with the barons of the country press who sought to restrict competition, and had sympathies with the New England New State Movement and the Old Guard.
However, the Mercury was making substantial losses when it was purchased by R.A.G. Henderson, the managing director of John Fairfax & Sons, in 1959. During the next decade, circulation doubled to over 25,000. In 1968, the Henderson family merged the Mercury with its main opposition, the South Coast Times, and appointed John Richardson executive editor. The following year Fairfax became the major shareholder for a cost of $2.4 million. Under David Lonsdale’s editorship, the newspaper became less parochial and more inclined to take on major community issues.
Peter Newell became editor in 1976, then executive editor in 1978 and finally general manager in 1985. Illawarra Holdings Pty Ltd launched a new weekly, the Wollongong-Shellharbour Advertiser, in 1982. The Mercury introduced computer-based story-composition, and in 1986 pioneered the use of colour in daily newspapers in Australia.
Journalists Bill Simpson and Carol Johnstone won Walkley Awards in 1986–87. However, the Mercury was labelled a ‘screaming red-top tabloid’ by James Hooke, Fairfax’s managing director of NSW operations, and in the early 1990s was regularly pilloried by ABC Television’s Media Watch.
Innovation continued, with the Mercury producing its first electronically assembled editorial page composed by computer in 1994, and being printed on state-of-the-art printing presses alongside the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review at Chullora from 1999. The Mercury was awarded PANPA Newspaper of the Year in 2006 and Walkleys were won by Mercury journalists in 2003, 2008 and 2010 and photographers in 2008–09. The Mercury’s circulation in 2013 was 18,229.
REFs: Illawarra Mercury, 15–16 October 2005; R. Kirkpatrick, ‘Guts-and-glory, murder and more during the Mercury’s 150 years’, PANPA Bulletin (September 2005); G. Souter, Company of Heralds (1981).