The National Times was launched in February 1971, with the aim of reaching an audience in search of a Sunday newspaper with more serious and analytical content than existing mastheads.
Although the National Times never made a profit for John Fairfax & Sons, in its 17-year life the paper achieved a substantial impact through its narrative and investigative journalism written by some of Australia’s most acclaimed journalists who were unafraid to expose corruption at the highest levels, often upsetting powerful leaders in politics and business.
The paper was initiated by Vic Carroll, managing editor of the Australian Financial Review, who believed that a new, nationally distributed Sunday newspaper would appeal to an affluent and educated demographic.
The first issue, on 7 February 1971, came three weeks before the launch of News Limited’s short-lived Sunday Australian. The first editor was Trevor Kennedy, a former London correspondent for the Financial Review.
By November 1972, when Kennedy resigned to join the Bulletin as editor, the paper’s circulation had risen to over 50,000, and it climbed even further when 33-year-old Max Suich, a former Tokyo correspondent for the Financial Review, became editor (1972–78). He built the quality of the newspaper with the help of a talented and determined editorial staff, and introduced a monthly colour magazine. By early 1974, circulation was 100,000.
Staff included the deputy editor Evan Whitton, journalists Glenys Bell, Fred Brenchley, Andrew Clark, John Edwards, Bruce Hanford, Adele Horin, John Jost, Paul Kelly, David Marr, Jon Powis, Yvonne Preston, Bruce Stannard, Anne Summers and Elisabeth Wynhausen, contributors P.P. McGuiness and Alan Wood, wine writer Kevon Kemp, chief sub-editor Bob Dempsey, designer Peter Burden, cartoonists Larry Pickering and Patrick Cook, artists Jenny Coopes, Michael Fitzjames and Neil Moore, and photographers Lorrie Graham and Peter Solness.
In 1975, Whitton’s three articles on how Australian entered the Vietnam War represented a landmark in Australian journalism and incurred not the first instance of angst with the management. Circulation peaked at 107,670 the following year and remained over 100,000 until late 1981, despite competition from the Weekend Australian and the ongoing hurdle that Melbourne newsagents refused to open on Sundays.
As editor (1978–81), Whitton brought long, narrative, New Journalism to the National Times. David Marr briefly followed Whitton as editor, but following an article linking the former NSW Premier, Sir Robert Askin, to organised crime, he stepped down from the job.
In 1981, during Marr’s editorship, the National Times carried the insert Business Review, a title that became a stand-alone magazine later that year as Business Review Weekly. Circulation began to fall, and never again rose over 100,000 despite the decision to move publication to Fridays from March 1983.
Brian Toohey became editor in April 1982, and worked closely with Marian Wilkinson on investigative stories, focusing on corruption in both NSW and federal politics. In 1984, Jefferson Penberthy was appointed managing editor, triggering a 48-hour strike by editorial staff.
Soon after Penberthy’s appointment, the paper published two articles based on leaked documents from the 1984 Costigan Royal Commission, including a person (‘Goanna’) later identified as Kerry Packer by Packer himself. Packer sued Fairfax, but the matter was settled by an apology.
By 1986, with circulation falling to just under 74,000, Fairfax rebranded the paper as a broadsheet titled the National Times on Sunday, changed four months later to the Times on Sunday. Robert Haupt was the editor. In April 1987, Haupt resigned and was replaced by Valerie Lawson, foundation editor of the Sydney Morning Herald colour magazine, Good Weekend.
Following the proposed takeover of John Fairfax & Sons by Sir Warwick Fairfax’s son, ‘young Warwick’, in August 1987, the paper was to be sold to the Perth entrepreneur Robert Holmes à Court, but the stockmarket crash two months later meant the deal fell through. The Times on Sunday closed on 13 March 1988. The last recorded circulation figure was just over 88,000.
Two weeks after the closure, Chris Anderson, the last managing editor of the National Times, wrote to Lawson: ‘I think with an indulgent management and long resources, it would have been a marvellous enterprise.’
In 2009, Fairfax Media relaunched the National Times as an opinion and editorial website.
REFs: G. Souter, Heralds and Angels (1991); V. Lawson, interviews with V.J. Carroll and M. Suich; personal papers.