The first newspapers published outside the capitals of the emerging Australian colonies reflected the ephemeral nature of the pioneering Australian press. In three of the six colonies (Tasmania, New South Wales and Western Australia), the first country newspaper survived six months or less, in South Australia the paper appeared only seven times in 17 months, while in Queensland it lasted 10 years. Only in Victoria did the first country title survive until the 21st century.
Tasmania’s second city of Launceston was the cradle of the Australian regional press, with the first seven provincial titles launched there. The first, the Tasmanian and Port Dalrymple Advertiser, appeared in January 1825 and the next six titles between February 1829 and March 1839. The other colonies followed: a spasmodic Port Lincoln Herald (SA) emerged in April 1839, the Geelong Advertiser (Vic) in November 1840, the Hunter River Gazette, Maitland (NSW) in December 1841, the North Australian, Ipswich (Qld) in October 1855, and the King George’s Sound Observer, Albany (WA) in August 1868. By 1850, a total of 30 newspaper titles had come off the hand-operated presses in Australian provincial towns. Only 12 of the titles survived until 1850, and only three of those—all dailies—are still being published: the Geelong Advertiser (est. 21 November 1840), the Examiner (Launceston, 12 March 1842) and the Maitland Mercury (7 January 1843).
The regional press expanded rapidly from the 1850s to the 1890s, with the number of newspapers increasing 30-fold to 475 in 1890—or one newspaper for every 4300 country dwellers. Seventy per cent of the papers were published in New South Wales and Victoria. Expansion was prompted initially by the gold rushes of the 1850s and 1860s. A writer in the Review of Reviews in 1907 observed that the goldfield gave the Australian country press ‘its first great impetus’.
The geographic spread of newspaper sites was most noticeable in Victoria, where there had been only four provincial newspapers at 1 January 1850 but 34 at the start of 1860. The number of newspaper publication centres had jumped from three to 22, with eight publishing more than one newspaper. Most of the new immigrants headed for the mining towns, and the population spiral was soon reflected in the number of new provincial titles—for example, five in 1854, 17 in both 1855 and 1856 (with the introduction and early spread of the electric telegraph), eight in 1857, 14 in 1858 and eight in 1859.
In New South Wales, in the decade from 1850, when three provincial newspapers were in print, 22 new titles were established, and 21 were in print as of 1 January 1860. In the emerging colony of Queensland, only three provincial titles emerged in the 1850s and each was still in print in 1860. No provincial titles emerged in South Australia and Western Australia in the 1850s. Solid development began in South Australia in the 1860s, and in Western Australia and Tasmania in the 1890s.
Studies of the sale prices and valuations of country newspapers in the 19th century suggest that a weekly newspaper could be started for somewhere between £300 and £600 ($600 and $1200). The tri-weekly Maitland Mercury was valued at £12,791 in 1860 and, after being mismanaged for several years, £10,150 in 1874. Thomas Garrett, founder of newspapers at Wollongong, Kiandra and Cooma, told the NSW parliament in 1872 that £200 was sufficient to start the average country paper if the proprietor were reporter, editor, typesetter and printer. The coming of the linotype at century’s end added £500 or £600 to the cost of establishing a country paper, but reduced the costs of producing it because less labour was needed.
A case study of the introductory editorial statements that 25 pioneering NSW provincial press proprietors published from 1843 to 1910 found only limited indications of fourth estate or ‘watchdog’ principles. However, in at least one important aspect, the study found the provincial press met Henry Reeve’s fourth estate concept: it consisted of ‘many organs, representing every variety and nuance of sentiment which prevails in the community’. These publications were also credible movers of information and opinion, with a desire to serve the people at large—even if later, with the advent of local government, dominant interests became more influential. A readiness in small communities to attack local newspaper proprietors tended to circumscribe press freedom. The overwhelming theme of the introductory statements was the material and social advancement of town and district and the enlargement of the district’s political power.
The establishment of a daily newspaper became a status symbol for an Australian town. Daily newspaper publication in regional areas was much more prolific from 1849 to 1900 than in the period between 1901 and 2000 because of the gold rushes and the relative cheapness of printing technology. From 1849, when the Geelong Advertiser became the first provincial daily, until the close of 1900, 121 dailies were published in 47 provincial centres in the six colonies. Victoria was the most prolific colony, with 44 dailies published in 13 centres; New South Wales had 31 dailies in 14 centres, Queensland 25 in eight, Western Australia 13 in six, Tasmania seven in five and South Australia just one.
By 1 January 1850, there had been and was only one Australian provincial daily. By 1 January 1860, 11 provincial dailies had been published in Victoria—three at each of Geelong, Ballarat and Sandhurst, and two at Beechworth; and one in New South Wales—at Braidwood. Queensland gained its first provincial daily in January 1873, South Australia its first in June 1873, Tasmania its first in December 1877 and Western Australia its first, in the form of a free advertising sheet, around March 1890.
The most remarkable aspect of 19th and early 20th century daily publication in regional Australian was the smallness of the populations. In Queensland, Rockhampton had a population of 6300 in 1875 and two daily newspapers. In New South Wales, Bathurst had 9000 residents in 1889 with three dailies, while Orange had 4220 residents in 1911 and two dailies.
Technology was an important influence on the pace of newspaper development in a vast colony such as Queensland. From the mid-1860s, the electric telegraph and the railway, gradually pushing out from port to hinterland up the north coast, helped lift the tempo of newspaper development and competition. By 1870, the newspaper centres linked to Brisbane by the telegraph were Ipswich, Toowoomba, Warwick, Dalby, Maryborough, Gympie, Gladstone, Rockhampton, Mackay, Bowen and Townsville. Only Clermont had no telegraphic link. Brisbane had been linked with Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide since 2 November 1861, inspiring one colonist to acclaim the means provided to glean ‘a faint whisper of the doings of the great world far away’.
In the 20th century, New South Wales published 41 new daily titles, Queensland 22, Victoria nine, Western Australia three, and South Australia and Tasmania one each. At 2001, only 37 dailies were being published in provincial Australia: 14 in New South Wales, 14 in Queensland, six in Victoria, two in Tasmania and one in Western Australia. In December 2011, two NSW north coast dailies became non-dailies. In the face of sharply dwindling circulation figures, the Daily News (Tweed Heads) changed to a weekly paid print edition with a digital daily, and the Coffs Coast Advocate (Coffs Harbour)—previously free two days and ‘paid’ on four others—also ceased daily issue, and appeared only on Wednesdays and Saturdays (free both days). Busy towns such as Armidale and Port Macquarie (NSW), Horsham and Sale (Vic), and Bunbury and Albany (WA) have never hosted a daily.
In 2002, a newspaper war broke out at Gosford-Wyong on the NSW Central Coast. John Fairfax Holdings launched the Central Coast Herald as a daily on 28 September, drawing partly on the resources of its long-established Newcastle Herald. News Limited countered by inserting a ‘Central Coast Extra’ supplement in the Sydney Daily Telegraph from 27 September, making its bi-weekly Express Advocate a free daily from 30 September, and halving the cover price of the Daily Telegraph on the Central Coast and in Newcastle and the Hunter. News Limited won the war, with the Central Coast Herald dropping its ‘Central Coast’ tag from the masthead in June 2003 and ceasing publication of a designated Central Coast edition in June 2004.
Key influences on regional newspaper development in the 20th century were the World Wars, the Great Depression, the advent of radio news from the 1930s, the beginning of commercial television in regional Australia from the beginning of the 1960s, the two major eras of technological change for newspaper production (at the beginning of the century, to mechanised typesetting and faster presses; and from the 1960s, to web-offset printing and soon after to computerised typesetting) and the advent of colour television in 1975. World War II brought savage restrictions on the use of newsprint, as in the case of the Newcastle Morning Herald, which had to be reduced from 108 to 34 pages per week. Although about 12 per cent of the provincial papers published in five states at the beginning of the war had disappeared by 1943 (some resumed after the war), no country paper missed publication because of the newsprint shortage.
The economic impact of war and depression on newspapers meant that amalgamations became commonplace in the first half of the century. Sometimes one centre experienced more than one marriage of newspapers, such as Bathurst, New South Wales in 1904 and 1963, and Toowoomba, Queensland in 1922 and 1970. Other significant amalgamations occurred at Cairns (1918, a daily and a bi-weekly formed a new daily), Mackay (1919, two dailies), Maryborough (1919, two dailies), Warwick (1919, two tri-weeklies became a daily), Bega (1923, three non-dailies), Albury (1925, two dailies), Bundaberg (1925, two dailies), Cootamundra (1928, two dailies), Orange (1945, two tri-weeklies became a daily) and Finley (1970, three non-dailies). The amalgamations made it easier for newspapers carrying no cover price to emerge. So-called free newspapers were an established fact of life by the 1970s in country districts, after earlier being dismissed as ‘advertising sheets’ and refused admission to country press associations.
Chains of newspapers emerged in the 20th century. Some comprised nothing but small papers, but others were built around a core of one or more dailies, such as the Elliott group with its Mildura daily, Western Newspapers Ltd with its Bathurst daily and Regional Publishers Pty Ltd with its Maitland daily. Many were built by entrepreneurial families, such as the Dunn family (Qld), Sommerlad and Armati families (NSW), Willson and Taylor families (SA), and McPherson and Yeates families (Victoria). Others were institutional enterprises, such as the North Queensland Newspaper Company Ltd, formed in 1910 by the amalgamation of newspaper interests centred on the daily Northern Miner (Charters Towers) and the Townsville Daily Bulletin; Northern Star Holdings Limited of Lismore, with four daily newspapers and interests in radio and television; and Rural Press Limited, built from the cornerstone of the weekly NSW farming paper the Land to become the biggest regional press enterprise in Australia—it owned newspapers in all six states and dailies in four of them when it merged with Fairfax Media in 2007.
Some of the groups defy easy categorisation, such as a chain of small Queensland country weeklies and monthly rural papers built up by Patrick James Leahy (1860–1927), entrepreneur and state politician, from unlikely beginnings at Thargomindah in 1884; a chain of north-western NSW weeklies amassed by Howard Edward Ostler Campbell (1899–1988) at places such as Gilgandra, Coonamble, Wee Waa, Brewarrina and Nyngan; a small chain of western and central-western NSW weeklies developed by the Orange-based Rural Newspapers Ltd in 1946 around its farm-oriented publication, the Western Stock and Station Journal; and a group of three dailies—at Wagga Wagga, Wollongong and Goulburn—put together by R.A.G. Henderson (1896–1986) almost as an afterthought while he focused on his day job as chief executive of John Fairfax & Sons.
The Dunn family owned dailies in Maryborough (from 1891), Rockhampton (1911 and 1929, merged in 1941), Warwick (1919–36) and Toowoomba (1922), and a bi-weekly in Nambour (1964). The group became the solid foundation for the merger of the newspaper interests of five other families that resulted in Provincial Newspapers (Qld) Ltd (PNQ) in 1968. PNQ began with six dailies (Maryborough, Rockhampton, Toowoomba, Mackay, Warwick and Ipswich) and interests in a seventh (Bundaberg), but soon owned eight dailies (including Bundaberg and Gladstone) and launched a ninth, the Sunshine Coast Daily, in 1980. In October 1987, only nine months before the O’Reilly family took over PNQ, the company added the four NSW northern rivers dailies (Coffs Harbour, Grafton, Lismore and the Tweed) to its stable during the corporate mayhem that followed the Murdoch takeover of the Herald and Weekly Times (HWT).
In mid-1960, Sir Frank Packer acquired, through Consolidated Press Holdings Ltd, a majority interest in the Maitland Mercury; he used it as the catalyst for developing a regional newspaper chain that spread throughout the Hunter Valley and north along the coast to Macksville, as well as into the central west of New South Wales. John Armati’s Macquarie Publications Pty Ltd expanded dramatically in the mid-1980s, buying newspapers in a path from the central west through to the south coast, in towns such as Wellington, Grenfell, Young, Canowindra, Cowra, Young, Bega, Eden, Merimbula, Moruya, Batemans Bay, Narooma, Goulburn and Cooma. In November 1985, the HWT bought Consolidated Press’s NSW provincial newspaper groups, Western Newspapers Ltd and Regional Publishers Pty Ltd. Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited took over the HWT in February 1987 and sold off Western Newspapers to Macquarie Publications, and Regional Publishers to Rural Press.
In Victoria, R.D. Elliott used the Sunraysia Daily (Mildura) as the foundation on which to build a provincial press group, known from shortly after his death in 1950 as the Elliott Provincial Newspaper Group and from June 1965 as the Elliott Newspaper Group. Many were struggling papers, such as those at Ouyen, Woomelang and Murrayville. Others, such as the Castlemaine Mail (1932), Shepparton Advertiser (1934) and Swan Hill Guardian (1937), were much more viable concerns. The Gippsland Times (Sale, 1960) and Latrobe Valley Express, (Morwell, 1970) were notable later acquisitions. Today the Elliott group continues solidly, thanks to three generations of control by the Lanyon family.
The McPherson family built a small media group based on the Shepparton News, which the family bought in 1888. The News became a daily in July 1972. Progressively, the McPhersons bought papers at nearby towns such as Seymour (1961), Nathalia (1962), Kyabram (1966), Echuca and Rochester (1969), Elmore (1970), Benalla (1986) and Cobram (1988), and over the border at Deniliquin and Finley (1988).
The HWT spread its tentacles into the regions in the 1960s and 1970s, buying the Bendigo Advertiser (1963), Kalgoorlie Miner (1970) and Geelong Advertiser (1973). These are now owned by three different companies: Fairfax Media (Bendigo), News Corp Australia (Geelong) and West Australian Newspapers Holdings (Kalgoorlie).
In South Australia, Fairfax Media dominates with a chain of newspapers, covering centres such as Ceduna, Clare, Murray Bridge, Naracoorte, Penola, Port Augusta, Port Pirie, Whyalla, Port Lincoln and Victor Harbor, all printed at its Murray Bridge centre. The other major group is based on Renmark, where the Taylor family has owned the Murray Pioneer since 1905. The group includes papers at Loxton, Waikerie, Gawler, Pinnaroo and Burra. In Western Australia, when West Australian Newspapers Holdings Limited (WAN) was floated in January 1992, it owned a chain of country papers, especially the Kalgoorlie daily and significant papers at Bunbury and Albany, as well as 49.9 per cent of the Perth-based Community Newspapers Group. In 2005, WAN made a major acquisition, the tri-weekly at Geraldton. Fairfax Media is the other major player in regional media in Western Australia.
In 1968, the Burnie Advocate became the first regional daily to change to web-offset printing. Within about a dozen years, every regional daily had made a similar change. This signalled the end of an era when letterpresses, such as Battle Creek reel-feds and Cossars, were bought from larger newspapers. The cost of the new web-offset equipment and the significantly better production results meant that each regional daily generally became the site of a centralised printery that churned out its own paper as well those smaller papers formerly printed on antiquated letter presses in surrounding towns. It was the snapping of a geographic link between the towns, such as Taree, Chinchilla, Horsham, Home Hill, Port Augusta and Wellington, and where their papers were printed, who printed them and who set the copy deadlines. Now, few regional dailies are printed on their own press.
APN News and Media closed newspaper presses progressively from 1998: Maryborough (1998), Warwick (2001), Ipswich (2006), Lismore (2008), Bundaberg and Mackay (both 2011), and Ballina (2013). By 2014, APN produced its 10 Queensland and two NSW dailies from only three print sites: Rockhampton, Yandina and Toowoomba. Fairfax Media, with regional dailies in four states and hundreds of other newspapers scattered over six states, had engaged in similar centralisation of printing and in April 2014 used only 15 newspaper printing sites to print its regional titles. After 12 March 2004, only the Don Dorrigo Gazette (NSW) continued to be produced by hot-metal methods.
The circulation of the regional dailies defied the declining metropolitan trends in the 1970s and 1980s, rising by 19.13 per cent from 1975 to 1985. By the 1990s, however, the regional dailies had joined their metropolitan cousins on the downhill slide, with the average regional decline between 1990 and 2000 being 7.19 per cent. From 2000–10, the overall decline was 14.05 per cent. Part of the cause was ease of access to news on the internet. By 2011, however, virtually all country newspapers provided the public with news via regularly updated websites. Only a few, such as the Shepparton News and the Bairnsdale Advertiser, had erected a paywall.
REFs: R. Kirkpatrick, The Bold Type (2010), ‘Chronic Circulation Decline: Regional Dailies Succumb to Metropolitan Virus’, Australian Studies in Journalism, 9 (2000), Country Conscience (2000) and Purposely Parochial (2008).