PRESS, AUSTRALIAN CAPITAL TERRITORY
When Canberra was officially named the national capital on 12 March 1913, the major paper in the region was the Queanbeyan Age, begun in 1860 by John Gale as the Golden Age and run by his descendants. Gale’s advocacy of the Canberra site earned him the title ‘the father of Canberra’.
Two minor newspapers appeared in the 1920s. The Federal Capital Pioneer, a modest four-page monthly, began on 3 December 1924, published by district pioneer Alexander K. Murray and printed at the Queanbeyan Age. Described as the official organ of the Australian Federal Capital League, it placed strong emphasis on the history of the Canberra district. It ceased publication in August 1926.
The first issue of Canberra Community News, a 16-page monthly, appeared on 14 October 1925 as the publicity organ of the Federal Capital Commission. The paper’s aim was to sustain the morale of the workers who had come to Canberra to build the national capital in line with the views of the Commission’s Chair, Sir John Butters, who placed great emphasis on developing community spirit. Under the masthead it listed ‘honorary reporters’ for each of the sporting clubs and progress associations in the tent cities and temporary workers’ settlements scattered around Canberra. It continued until 15 December 1927, when the Commission withdrew financial support.
As Canberra began to take shape, regional newspaper publisher Thomas Mitchell Shakespeare began publishing the Canberra Times with the help of his sons. The paper became bi-weekly on 3 May 1927, and in its first issue as a daily on 28 February 1928 carried the statement that became associated with the paper: ‘To serve the National City and through it the Nation’. The Great Depression resulted in a halt to the development of Canberra, making a daily newspaper unviable. This situation continued until 1936, when the Canberra Times saw revenue and expenditure balanced for the first time. World War II presented further difficulties, with staff enlistments and labour shortages. When the Canberra Times celebrated its silver jubilee on 3 September 1951, the Shakespeare family still maintained total control. An editor from outside the family, Charles Meeking, was appointed the following year. On 11 June 1956, the paper changed to a tabloid format. From its rocky early years the paper’s misprints, attributed to its notorious printers’ ‘gremlin’, became part of Canberra lore looked forward to by eagle-eyed readers. The gremlin could transfer ‘old buffers’ in copy to ‘old buggers’ in print and ‘recently married’ to ‘decently married’.
Competition appeared from an unlikely source on 16 February 1961, when Kenneth Edward (Ken) Cowley began a weekly free paper, the Territorial, in a backyard shed. The paper was welcomed by advertisers tired of Shakespeare’s monopoly. Canberra businessman and developer J.H. Pead provided financial backing, and the paper expanded to a lively 32 pages and became a paid publication. In 1963, Cowley tried to interest Rupert Murdoch in a joint venture but Murdoch had more expansive plans. The following year, Cowley sold to Murdoch, with the last issue of the Territorial appearing on 21 May 1964. When Murdoch’s Australian began in Canberra in July, Cowley was production manager.
When Shakespeare became aware of Murdoch’s plan to start the Australian, he sold out to John Fairfax & Sons Ltd. Within a month of the change of ownership on 1 May 1964, the new editor, J.D. Pringle—formerly editor of the Sydney Morning Herald—had transformed the paper from a tabloid into broadsheet with greatly improved news coverage. The first issue of the Australian appeared on 15 July 1964, with plates being flown to Sydney and Melbourne to print the national edition. From 17 August 1964 a separate tabloid Canberra and Southern edition was distributed in the region enclosed with the national edition but it made no headway against the reinvigorated Canberra Times. Murdoch, who had expected ‘to crush a weak and poorly produced provincial paper’, found he had ‘to compete with a quality daily, backed by a major rival’. The Canberra edition of the Australian was abandoned on 19 June 1965, and from 18 March 1967 production of the national edition moved to Sydney.
The Canberra Times began an afternoon newspaper, the Canberra News, on 12 November 1969, but the paper made significant losses and ceased publication on 19 July 1974. A Sunday edition of the Canberra Times began in 1978 and continues under the title Sunday Canberra Times. After just over 60 years at Mort Street, Braddon, the Canberra Times moved its headquarters to a new complex in the industrial suburb of Fyshwick on 24 April 1987.
In September 1987, in the break-up of the John Fairfax Group following Warwick Fairfax Junior’s failed attempt to privatise the company, Kerry Packer acquired the Canberra Times, soon selling it to Kerry Stokes.
In September 1998, regional newspaper publisher Rural Press Ltd acquired the Canberra Times from Kerry Stokes. In 2004, when Rural Press sacked some of the Canberra Times’ senior journalists, the paper was accused of narrowing its focus and abandoning any ambition to ‘national greatness’. Tension between commercial considerations and quality reporting—sometimes enhanced by the availability in the national capital of senior academics and retired bureaucrats to contribute opinion pieces and reviews—has surfaced during several phases of the paper’s existence. In 2007, Rural Press Ltd merged with Fairfax Media and the paper remains in the Fairfax group. Although the only daily in the city, the Canberra Times continues to face competition from Sydney and Melbourne newspapers.
REFs: Canberra Times anniversary supplements, 20 September 1976 and 3 September 2001; J. Gibbney, Canberra 1913–1953 (1988).