The first newspaper in New South Wales grew out of the need to circulate official orders in the penal colony.
The first step was to publish in late 1802 the standing orders of Governors Phillip, Hunter and King in book form. George Howe—the second government printer, who was a ticket-of-leave convict—produced the book. The first government printer (1795–1802), George Hughes, also a convict, printed more than 800 orders and notices, several broadsides and a few playbills, some of which were incorporated in the 136-page book that Howe produced. Governor Philip Gidley King can probably take as much credit as Howe for the idea of a newspaper, which materialised as the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser on 5 March 1803.
Howe had to suspend publication twice, for six weeks in 1807 because of a lack of paper, and eight months in 1808–09 largely during the military overthrow of Governor William Bligh in what has been loosely termed the Rum Rebellion. The never-ending difficulty of obtaining paper, in whatever size, shape or colour, led Howe to reflect on a publication ‘conceived in doubt, brought forth in difficulty, and reared in many an altered shape’. From 1811, under Governor Lachlan Macquarie, he received £60 a year as government printer. When Howe died in 1821, his 26-year-old son, Robert, took over the newspaper and succeeded his father as government printer.
In September 1824, Governor Thomas Brisbane ruled that the ‘by authority’ regime in newspapers should end, opening the way for two barristers to launch the first ‘unshackled’ newspaper in Australia. When William Charles Wentworth and Robert Wardell started the Australian in Sydney on 14 October 1824, Governor Brisbane did not intervene. The next day, Robert Howe obtained the Governor’s permission to publish his Gazette and ownership of the copyright. The Australian exhibited the spirit of reform that Wentworth had noted during a visit to England.
Even more outspoken against the government was the Monitor, first published in Sydney on 19 May 1826 by editor and part-proprietor Edward Smith Hall, a belligerent advocate of working men’s rights. Seeking to silence Hall, Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling passed through the Legislative Council in January 1830 a new press law making it mandatory for the court to banish any person convicted a second time of seditious libel. Hall resumed writing only on learning the British Parliament had disallowed Darling’s Act. Darling was recalled to Britain in late 1831.
On 18 April that year, the Sydney Herald was launched as a weekly, appearing daily from 1 October 1840 and becoming the Sydney Morning Herald on 1 August 1842. It is still published under that title. The founding proprietors, Alfred Ward Stephens, Frederick Michael Stokes and William McGarvie, had met while employed by the Sydney Gazette. McGarvie sold his share in the Herald to Stephens and Stokes after the fifth issue. The circulation of the paper rose to 750 in the first month and 1100 in the first year. By 1836, each issue of the Herald was selling 1600 copies—far more than any competitor.
In 1850 the Herald was the only Sydney daily. But (Sir) Henry Parkes, later to be premier, started the Empire, with the backing of various wealthy men, on 28 December 1850 as a weekly, and issued it daily three weeks later. In 1854, the Empire first made a small profit, but even then Parkes did not manage to make it a solid business. He lost possession of it in August 1858 after being declared insolvent; Samuel Bennett, formerly a Herald printer and overseer, revived it in May 1859.
Bennett launched the Evening News on 29 July 1867. He printed 2000 copies of the first issue, but by December 1867 its circulation was 8000. On 1 January 1868, the Empire became a penny daily, but under Bennett it was largely a scaled-down version of its former self. The Evening News outshone the Empire, so when the Empire’s compositors gave notice of a strike, Bennett closed the paper on 9 February 1875 and incorporated it in the Evening News.
At the Herald, John Fairfax used his new six-cylinder Hoe rotary press to publish a weekly, the Sydney Mail, from July 1860. With a cover price of threepence, the Mail was a cheap, condensed version of the preceding six issues of the Herald. Its target audience was country people who received mail deliveries only once or twice a week. Sydney working men who could ill afford a quarterly subscription to the Herald or Empire also bought it. Sales of the Mail reached 5000 within six months and 10,000 within four years. Competition in January 1870 from Bennett’s Australian Town and Country Journal caused the Mail to modernise, adopting the smaller page size of its rival and introducing small illustrations; it also issued a monthly supplement with a large lithograph of a colonial townscape or landscape. The Mail and the Journal reflected much of the best of illustrated journalism in the 19th century.
The Daily Telegraph, launched on 1 July 1879, initially struggled before a restructure brought new hope. Projector and founding editor J.M. Lynch quit in March 1882. New manager Watkin Wynne reconstructed the shareholding and senior staff of the company, building the editorial platform on which the Telegraph’s success would be based. He installed as editor Frederick William Ward, a former Wesleyan minister who had edited the Echo from 1879 to 1884 for the Fairfax family. The Telegraph treated news as, in Henry Mayer’s words, ‘something bright, light and entertaining’. Circulation jumped, overtaking the Herald by 1890, advertising revenue swelled and the mechanical department soon needed bigger premises.
The Sydney market for afternoon newspapers became the scene of constantly changing competition from the mid-1880s. In 1884, the Evening News claimed a circulation more than double its nearest competitor, and in 1888 a circulation four times that of any other daily. W.H.L. Bailey started the afternoon Globe in November 1885. By early 1886, the Globe claimed to be the largest afternoon paper in Australia, but it ceased publication in June 1887. Within six months, the Australian Star began, with W.H. Traill as editor and many workers as shareholders. The Star supported the protectionist cause, whereas the other four Sydney dailies supported free trade. By 1890, two morning and three evening dailies existed in Sydney. Except for the twopenny Herald, each of the dailies sold for one penny. The Echo disappeared in 1893 when the Herald reduced its price to one penny, and the Australian Star was remodelled and re-launched as the Sun in 1910.
Reading Sunday newspapers became an established habit in the 1880s. The day before Bailey launched the daily Globe, he launched the Sunday Times (15 November 1885)—only the second designated Sunday paper in Sydney. The first, also the Sunday Times, survived only a few weeks in mid-1849. The second lasted until 1930 and Bailey, who was its proprietor for only a few months, launched the short-lived Sunday News in 1886. Truth, launched in 1890, became a profitable, sensational Sunday paper under John Norton’s ownership (1896–1916) and continued until 1995.
The first Australian-born editor of the Herald was Thomas William Heney, who joined the Herald in 1878, becoming associate editor (1898–1903) and editor (1903–18). The Herald had a calm style, a reasoned approach and admirable news coverage. It tried hard to avoid sectarianism, then a powerful undercurrent in colonial society. In one way, the Herald abandoned the conservative commitment to old political forms and sponsored a radical change: Federation of the colonies.
A distinctive press development began on 31 January 1880, when John Haynes and J.F. Archibald started the weekly Bulletin. It carried an eclectic mix of news, cutting and sometimes humorous comment, social jottings and literary items. Intended to be a clever and humorous weekly with a Catholic flavour, the Bulletin was significant not because it started but because it survived. In its first full month, it sold around 4000 copies each issue, 10,000 in June and 16,000 in October. Its size jumped from eight to 12 and then 16 pages. Although sympathetic to Labor, it always remained independent of formal attachment to any party. It expressed a vociferous Australian nationalism, Anglophobia and republicanism. It was also blatantly racist.
Suburban newspapers serving Sydney have been published, generally weekly, since the final decades of the 19th century, but the competition became fierce only when the heavyweights—Fairfax, Packer and Murdoch—clashed at the beginning of the 1960s. By the end of the 1980s, it was Murdoch (Cumberland Newspapers) versus Fairfax (Fairfax Community Newspapers) and the Hannan family (Eastern Suburbs Newspapers). Hannan sold to Murdoch in 2007, with the Cumberland-Courier newspaper group becoming NewsLocal in 2011.
A labour press interpreting the world from the working man’s perspective sprang up across Australia in the 1880s and 1890s. Among the significant early labour newspapers were the Australian Worker (Sydney, 1891) and papers in provincial centres, such as Grenfell and Grafton. The Australian Worker, which started as the Hummer in Wagga Wagga, was soon rechristened the Worker and shifted to Sydney in 1893. It absorbed the Australian Workman in 1897 and became the Australian Worker in 1913. The talent of some of its contributors and staff members lifted it above virtually all other labour papers. Direct Action, a radical paper representing the Industrial Workers of the World in Australia, appeared in Sydney in January 1914 and was famous during World War I for whipping up opposition to two plebiscites on conscription. Both were defeated. A Labor daily—initiated as the Daily Mail (1922–24) and continued as the Labor Daily (1922–38) and the Daily News (1938–40)—was incorporated into the Daily Telegraph from 27 July 1940.
Newspapers serving farming interests have been published since the 1880s, with the Sydney Stock & Station Journal (1888–1924) leading to Country Life and Stock & Station Journal (1924–78) and National Country Life (1978–79). The Farmer & Settler (1906–57) and the Land (1911– ) have been other major publications. The Land was the foundation stone for the Rural Press Limited empire.
The ethnic press in Sydney dates back to the 19th century, with titles such as the Jewish Voice of Jacob (1842) and the Italian L’Italo-Australiano (1885). After World War II, when Australia experienced an unprecedented increase in the number of non-English-speaking settlers, New South Wales also experienced a significant growth in the ethnic press, for Europeans (especially Italians) in the 1950s and 1960s and for settlers from Asian and Middle Eastern regions from the mid-1970s and into the 1980s.
In March 1919, within months of war’s end, Sir James Joynton Smith financed the launch of a cheeky weekly magazine by Robert Clyde Packer and Claude Mackay. Smith’s Weekly came, in the words of its historian George Blaikie, ‘jazzing from the inky womb of the press, roaring full toot, doing back flips to make people laugh, and offering to fight any many in the House, State, World, or Universe’. After initial losses, it turned the corner in 1921. By August 1922, sales had reached 145,000, of which 88,000 were in New South Wales. The most obvious quality of Smith’s Weekly was its splendid artwork—its illustrators were said to be the most highly paid in the world. Soon Joynton Smith considered issuing a daily, and arranged for a cable service from the Manchester Guardian. Sydney’s Daily Guardian, which began on 2 July 1923, offered free insurance for readers, shopping competitions for housewives and the Miss Australia contest for maidens.
The first photographic images in the Sydney Morning Herald appeared on 21 August 1908 to illustrate the arrival in Sydney of the visiting US Navy’s Great White Fleet. The photographic images used in the early years were mainly small portraits of people in the news. In 1924, the Daily Telegraph replaced advertisements on its front page with news, but the Herald did not follow suit until 15 April 1944.
The Daily Telegraph struggled and changed in the 1920s and 1930s. It modernised itself in 1924 and made greater use of illustrations, no longer looking like a clone of the Herald. In 1927, it transformed itself into the new type of bright, breezy tabloid pioneered in Australia by the Melbourne Sun News-Pictorial. It successively became the Daily Telegraph News Pictorial, the Daily Telegraph Pictorial and then simply the Daily Pictorial as it went increasingly downmarket. Under new ownership in 1931, it repositioned itself in the mid-market, again becoming the Daily Telegraph.
By early 1931, Sun Newspapers Ltd had acquired most Sydney newspapers through amalgamating with S. Bennett Ltd to become Associated Newspapers Ltd, and also by buying the Daily and Sunday Guardians. Associated Newspapers closed the Sunday News (January 1930), Daily Guardian (February 1931), Evening News (March 1931) and Sunday Guardian (September 1931). This left Associated with one morning title (the Daily Telegraph), one afternoon title (the Sun) and two Sunday papers (the Sunday Sun and the Sunday Pictorial). (Sir) Frank Packer acquired control of the Daily Telegraph in 1936 and made it distinctively his own for 36 years.
Between 1931 and 1941, the Sun had no afternoon competitor. But Ezra Norton, publisher of Truth & Sportsman Ltd, controversially launched the Daily Mirror on 12 May 1941 after several changes of heart by the government because of wartime newsprint rationing. The Sun’s circulation fell from 229,102 in March 1941 to 189,874 a year later. In 1958, John Fairfax & Sons, which had gradually taken a controlling interest in Associated Newspapers in the first half of the 1950s, bought the Mirror through a shelf company, O’Connell Pty Ltd. Fairfax did not divulge that it was publishing both Sydney afternoon newspapers. Amazingly, it did not incorporate the Mirror in the Sun. In May 1960, Fairfax managing director R.A.G. Henderson arranged the sale of the Mirror to Rupert Murdoch without finally consulting chairman Sir Warwick Fairfax who was overseas and was opposed to the sale. Murdoch, who had bought the suburban Cumberland Newspapers group in February that year, now had a firm foothold in Sydney.
John Fairfax & Sons launched the Australian Financial Review as a weekly in 1951, issuing it daily from 21 October 1963. Murdoch shifted production of his national daily, the Australian (launched in Canberra in July 1964) to Sydney in March 1967. It is now printed in six capitals and Townsville. In June 1972, Murdoch bought the mastheads and goodwill of Frank Packer’s Daily and Sunday Telegraphs for $15 million and immediately closed his own Sunday Australian.
The advent of television triggered a change in newspapers. They focused more on explaining and interpreting the news rather than straight reporting. Colour television greatly increased the pressure on newspapers to provide colour advertisements. To this end, web offset presses were adopted by Sydney’s dailies in the 1980s.
In 1987, three events threw NSW newspapers into upheaval: the Murdoch takeover of the Herald and Weekly Times (HWT) (February); the disastrous privatisation of the John Fairfax Group by Warwick Fairfax Junior (August) seven months after the death of his father, Sir Warwick; and the stockmarket crash (October). The crash accentuated the ineptitude of the Fairfax privatisation, which ended in receivership in December 1990. Meanwhile, in March 1988, Fairfax closed the weekly Times on Sunday (formerly the National Times, est. 1971) and the Sun on successive days. Two chains of country newspapers formerly owned by the Packer family and briefly by the HWT—Regional Publishers Pty Ltd and Western Newspapers Ltd—were divided respectively between Rural Press and Macquarie Publications Pty Ltd. John B. Fairfax, who had sold his stake in the Fairfax group, took a 51 per cent shareholding of Rural Press and soon became the chairman of the group, which expanded greatly over the next two decades before merging with Fairfax Media in 2007. Two north coast regional dailies, serving the Tweed and Coffs Harbour regions, became non-dailies in December 2011.
Murdoch closed the Daily Mirror in October 1990, incorporating it in the Daily Telegraph to form a 24-hour paper. Both News Limited (April 1994) and Fairfax (early 1996) shifted their newspaper production plants from the Sydney CBD to outer suburban Chullora. Fairfax closed its Chullora site in mid-2014 and shifted the bulk of its printing to North Richmond. A Sydney version of mX, the free commuter daily launched in Melbourne in 2001, began in July 2005.
News Limited and John Fairfax Holdings engaged in a full-scale newspaper war on the Central Coast from September 2002, when Fairfax launched a daily morning paper, the Central Coast Herald, to serve Gosford and Wyong. It had the backing of the Newcastle Herald. News Limited retaliated by making its free bi-weekly, the Express Advocate, a free daily and by halving the price of its Daily Telegraph on the Central Coast and in Newcastle and the Hunter region to 50 cents and inserting a ‘Central Coast Extra’ supplement. Fairfax virtually threw in the towel nine months later and the Herald ceased publication in June 2004.
REFs: G. Souter, Company of Heralds (1981) and Heralds and Angels (1991); R.B. Walker, The Newspaper Press in New South Wales, 1803–1920 (1976) and Yesterday’s News (1980).