LEADER COMMUNITY NEWSPAPERS
This chain of 33 weekly free tabloid newspapers is distributed across metropolitan Melbourne. Its reach extends south-east to the Mornington Peninsula and west to Bacchus Marsh, ensuring that it has a larger distribution footprint than its two rivals, Fairfax Community Newspapers and the Star News Group. Leader is part of News Corp Australia, and is regarded as one of the largest newspaper networks in the southern hemisphere, reaching an estimated 1.35 million readers a week.
The Leader network was founded in Northcote, an inner northern suburb of Melbourne. A pair of brothers, A.H. and W. Richardson, launched the Northcote Leader and District Record in 1888, but operated the publication in the leafy suburb of Brighton. The emergence of a rival, the Northcote Examiner, forced the brothers to establish an office in Northcote, which increased the local news content and soon ensured that the paper—and its sister publication, the Preston Leader—were appealing commercial properties. In 1890, another pair of brothers, twins John and Robert Whalley, from Creswick in rural Victoria, bought the papers, which they retained until 1924, working assiduously to build local content and extending readership as far north as Whittlesea. Both brothers were active in the local community and John edited the Northcote Leader for 30 years.
John Whalley’s tenure ended in 1924 when the brothers sold the papers to Decimus Mott, who created the Leader company four years later. His son, George Horace, inherited the Mott family group in 1946. Mott’s alliances with other titles meant that during the 1960s more than a third of Melbourne’s population was reading papers owned or connected to Leader. Walter Mott Jr would later reason: ‘Photos and names of people and what they were doing was the most important part of a suburban newspaper.’
But the market was diversifying as other newspaper owners saw the value of the advertising markets—especially in real estate—that underpinned the success of the suburban chains. By the early 1970s, there were seven suburban owners in Victoria, with Leader controlling 17 papers. But suburban newspaper publishing was changing, and was now inextricably linked to the fortunes of the metropolitan media empires.
In 1977, David Syme & Co. Ltd—which published the Age and a small network of suburban newspapers—attempted to buy Leader’s main rival, the Standard Group, which circulated in the city’s eastern and bayside suburbs. This triggered an aggressive response from the Herald and Weekly Times (HWT), which trumped the Syme bid and absorbed the Standard Group. In this febrile environment, the Motts embarked on a defensive merger with another suburban publisher, Progress Press. David Syme then turned its attention to Cumberland Newspapers, run by Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited, and bought the group’s four Victorian publications (and typesetting operations in Dandenong) for $2.5 million. The end result was a significant rationalisation of the Melbourne suburban market, down to three main players: Leader, the HWT and David Syme. In 1986, the HWT bought the Leader group, making it the most significant player in the suburban newspaper market. This meant that when Murdoch bought the HWT the following year, he took on all the Leader titles.
Since then, Leader has maintained its primacy in the market, extending further in to the western suburbs with the absorption of the Western Times in 2006 and establishing several new titles in Melbourne’s growing outer south-eastern suburbs. In 2001, the company embarked on a re-branding campaign that ensured every paper became branded ‘Leader’. This eroded the distinct identities of its various publications, but guaranteed a consistency of look and approach across the titles, providing a single, strong platform for advertisers to promote their businesses across the network.
Although total readership figures declined after 2001, the established community newspaper groups continued to build readers through their website presence, enhancing their involvement with specific communities under specific mastheads.