Australian Indigenous newspapers have provided a mechanism through which to map changes to government policy, societal attitudes and the range of issues affecting Indigenous people. They have also left an indelible record of Indigenous voices and perspectives. More than 36 Indigenous newspapers have been published since 1836. Some have been produced by Aboriginal organisations, while others have been individual initiatives. Many of the writers and producers of Indigenous newspapers are or have been well-known political campaigners for Indigenous rights.
The first Aboriginal newspaper, and an early example of Aboriginal writing, is the Aboriginal or Flinders Island Chronicle. The first edition of the Chronicle, dated 10 September 1836, was written at Wybalenna Aboriginal settlement, Flinders Island, Tasmania. The last known edition was dated January 1838. Aboriginal writers Thomas Brune and Walter George Arthur wrote the Chronicle under the direction and editorship of the Protector of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson. The aim of the journal is set out in its first sentences: ‘the object of this journal is to promote Christianity civilisation and learning to the Aborigines, inhabitants at Flinders Island’. However, its content also serves as a poignant portrayal of daily life on the Flinders Island settlement.
Almost 100 years later, the Australian Abo Call: The Voice of the Aborigines was published in Sydney. The Abo Call ran from April to September 1938. Aboriginal campaigner John T. Patten and Sydney polemicist P.R. Stephensen wrote the content, and it was edited by Stephensen. Patten used the Abo Call to promote the activities of the Sydney-based organisation, the Aborigines Progressive Association, and to encourage membership. The Abo Call also presented ‘the case for Aborigines’ to the broader Australian community. It is one of the first examples of Aboriginal writing being used to influence public opinion and policy. It covered topics such as the January 1938 Aboriginal Day of Mourning protest, Aboriginal living conditions on reserves, Aboriginal sporting achievements and Aboriginal Protection Board deductions from wages and family endowment payments. Through the Abo Call, Patten encouraged readers to become politically active. More than 800 government departments, organisations and individuals subscribed, and the publication claimed a readership of over 80,000.
More Indigenous newspapers were launched during the 1950s and 1960s, including the Westralian Aborigine on the west coast and Smoke Signals (1960– ) and Churinga (1964–70; known as Alchuringa since 1971) on the east coast. Despite lacking Abo Call’s political stance, they lobbied for Aboriginal rights and sought to inform, educate and influence mainstream Australians.
During the late 1960s, Bruce McGuinness, president of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League (VAAL), actively pushed for Aboriginal control of organisations. In 1968 he produced the Koorier (which was the National Koorier from 1968–69 and has been known as Jumbunna since 1971), and used it as a political platform. The Koorier was the first truly confrontational Indigenous newspaper. McGuinness was both a mentor and inspiration to Aboriginal activists such as Gary Foley, Denis Walker and Bob Maza, and he encouraged them to write for the Koorier and to produce their own work. Since McGuinness published both supportive and opposing political opinion in the Koorier, the newspaper demonstrates the variety of political views circulating in the Indigenous public sphere at that time. The Koorier also acted as a training vehicle by educating readers on how to write letters to the editor and get them published in mainstream newspapers. Unfortunately, his radical stance drew criticism from moderate members of the VAAL and attracted government attention. The government withdrew funding from the VAAL, which left no money to publish the Koorier; this forced McGuinness to seek donations from readers.
The 1960s through to the 1980s were the heyday for Indigenous newspaper production. Many key Indigenous rights campaigners produced or wrote the publications that appeared during this time. Gary Foley, Denis Walker, Marcia Langton, Bob Maza, Cheryl Buchanan, John Newfong, Bruce McGuinness, Roberta Sykes, Kevin Gilbert and Charles Perkins were all involved with the production of Aboriginal publications.
Koori-bina: A Black Australian News Monthly (1977–79) was published by the Black Women’s Action Group in Redfern, Sydney. Writers Roberta Sykes, Marcia Langton and Sue Chilli used Koori-bina to raise awareness of biased media coverage of Indigenous issues in mainstream Australian newspapers, Aboriginal unemployment, health issues affecting Aboriginal people and land rights. Like many Indigenous newspapers, Koori-bina struggled to survive because of a lack of funding. It reappeared as AIM: Aboriginal-Islander-message (1979–82).
Identity, published by the Aboriginal Publications Foundation (APF), first in Sydney, then Perth and Canberra between 1971 and 1982, was one of the most successful Indigenous publications. Funding from the Aboriginal Arts Board was subsidised with subscription fees, and more than 10,000 copies of the first edition were circulated. Its focus changed across its five editors. Both Barrie Ovenden and Jack Davis took an apolitical stance, whereas under professional journalist John Newfong’s editorship it became a political campaign tool. The final editor, Les Malezer, took a more moderate position than Newfong, but the magazine still covered political topics. During Ovenden’s editorship, Identity drew criticism from members of the Aboriginal community, the deputy editor Kevin Gilbert and the APF secretary Charles Perkins because of its lack of Aboriginal involvement. Aboriginal writer Kevin Gilbert later resigned and went on to publish his own, more political newspaper, Alchuringa, a renamed version of Churinga. Identity folded after Malezer returned to Brisbane and a decision was made to cease publication.
The land rights movement has been an enduring theme throughout Indigenous newspaper content. While most Indigenous newspapers covered the land rights issue to some degree, from the 1970s onwards newspapers were published with the specific purpose of influencing, educating and informing about the land rights movement. Key land rights publications include: Bunji: Many Tribes—One People (1971–83), Land Rights News (1976– ), Messagestick (1986– ) and Land Rights Queensland (LRQ, 1994–2002). Land Rights Queensland was first produced by the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action in Brisbane in 1994. LRQ was funded by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) to provide Indigenous perspectives on land rights and the native title debate. LRQ provided information to the Indigenous community and generated mainstream media news coverage that included Indigenous viewpoints and voices by holding media conferences to launch each edition. Journalists who attended the conferences were connected to appropriate Indigenous sources who could speak about the land rights movement and specific action being taken.
In 1991, the first nationally distributed Indigenous newspaper, the Koori Mail, was launched; in 2002, the National Indigenous Times appeared. During the 2000s, the Howard Coalition government’s policy of mainstreaming funding and the abolition of ATSIC led to a reduction in the number of Indigenous newspapers being published. Since newspaper production was usually not core business for Indigenous organisations, more pressing issues were given a higher priority in terms of allocating funding. In addition to the two national newspapers, one of the only Indigenous publications still in print is the Torres News (1957– ) in the Torres Strait Islands.
The desire to influence policy, educate the broader Australian community and inform both the Indigenous and mainstream community about the activities of Indigenous organisations and shared concerns is a common thread running through Indigenous newspapers. Simultaneously, the battle to obtain sufficient independent or government funding to continue publishing is a problem faced by many Indigenous publications. Regardless of the challenges, from 1836 onwards Indigenous newspapers have provided a wide range of perspectives on Aboriginal rights and other debates across the Australian political and social landscape.
REF: E. Burrows, ‘Writing to be Heard: The Indigenous Print Media’s Role in Establishing and Developing an Indigenous Public Sphere’ (PhD thesis, 2009).