Australia’s colonists loved news from the beginning, bringing British newspapers and magazines with them and longing for ship-borne updates. Growth of the colonies sparked strong interest in local news and information, met at first by the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser from 1803 and the Derwent Star in 1810, then in successive decades by dozens of publications as government controls lifted.
Although it was the central function of newspapers, news remained book-ended by advertising for well over a century, not emerging on the front pages of most papers until the 1920s. The Melbourne Herald was the first daily to publish news on its front page in 1889, but the Sydney Morning Herald waited until 1944 and the West Australian until 1949.
Nineteenth-century news was a mixture of brief factual reports of such incidents as crimes, accidents and ship arrivals, and lengthy reports of parliamentary speeches, public meetings and official announcements, as well as foreign reports from overseas papers (quite dated until the advent of the Overland Telegraph in the 1872). Leavening the mix in some newspapers were witty observations and unstructured commentary. The on-the-record interview as a research technique was unknown, as was sourcing of information.
News layout was drab, but multi-deck headings emerged in the 1880s and lasted more than half a century. For example, the Melbourne Argus’s story of 29 June 1880 on bushranger Ned Kelly was headed: ‘DESTRUCTION OF THE KELLY GANG/DESPERATE ENCOUNTER/NED KELLY CAPTURED/DAN KELLY, HART AND BYRNE DEAD/CHILDREN AND CIVILIANS KILLED AND WOUNDED’. The hijacking of the Sydney Harbour Bridge opening ceremony was labelled by the Sydney Sun with ‘New Guardsman Severs Bridge Ribbon/ SWORD SLASH DRAMA/‘In Name Of Common Decency And Decent Politics’/SEIZED BY POLICE’ (19 March 1932).
In the early 20th century, in keeping with British and US trends, news became more objective in tone, with attempts at balance and comprehensive coverage of events through development of a rounds system. News developed into such forms as ‘hard’, ‘soft’ and ‘breaking’, with long-form journalism as ‘features’. Photos began to appear in 1908, and helped drive the Sun News-Pictorial’s runaway success from 1922.
The introduction of radio broadcasting in the 1920s at first added little to news. Pressure from print media limited ABC and commercial radio stations to broadcasting shortened versions of newspaper articles, and there was not much original news-gathering until World War II. The post-war years saw recruitment of specialist radio journalists and the development of a news writing genre more suited to the ear than the eye. Recording of voices and other live sounds (‘actuality’) allowed radio journalism to be more than simply announcer-read bulletins, although the ABC long resisted this practice. Government restrictions on recording of phone conversations also acted as a restraint, while recording of parliament was prohibited until the 1980s.
The licensing of television broadcasting from 1956 added moving pictures to the news, although the official view of the ABC initially was that television news should be radio news with pictures. Visually centred news-telling became the norm, despite the technical challenges posed by processing and editing film against tight deadlines.
Long debate within the ABC over the nature of facts and the extent to which journalists should provide a commentary on events—or even adopt a subjective approach—resulted in the separation of news and current affairs, a distinction also applied in commercial television.
While news in any country focuses first on the nation’s interests, Australia’s international news coverage is better than most—albeit with a bias towards the Anglosphere and in particular the United States and Britain. Nevertheless, content studies show considerable interest in Asia and the Middle East. Relatively under-reported are nearby Pacific Island nations as well as Latin America and most of Africa.
Foreign news coverage has fluctuated wildly over two centuries—less than 8 per cent for much of the 19th century but now around 20 per cent, about the same level as sport—while politics has generally been the largest news category. Priorities vary over time and between titles: furious tabloid warfare between Sydney’s afternoon dailies in the 1960s and 1970s led to boosting of police rounds news, echoed in other capitals. The demise of the afternoon tabloids resulted partly from commercial television’s greater immediacy in telling dramatic local stories. But a strong entertainment element has been established in newspapers of various types.
SBS set its news service apart by emphasising international news, based especially on feeds from partners in Europe and Asia. A recipe of 75 per cent overseas news was established, together with coverage of immigrant-related news.
In newspapers and broadcasting, commitment to serious investigative journalism reporting emerged in the second half of the century, strengthening the news media’s ‘fourth estate’ role within society—the first investigative unit was the Age’s ‘Insight’ team in 1967, with other newspapers, the ABC and commercial television following suit. An opposing trend became the influence of public relations, with more than half of all published news stories demonstrated to have a PR origin. Another challenge for newspaper journalism has been proprietorial involvement in the editorial role.
For much of the 20th century the major metropolitan broadsheet newspapers styled themselves as ‘papers of record’, in the same tradition as the London Times and the New York Times, with for example all political and judicial appointments duly recorded as well as obituaries. The diminishing size of newspapers and their staffs has seen the fading of this tradition.
In the 21st century, internet news has involved the convergence of the older media together with such innovations as hyperlinks and instant audience feedback. New online-only titles have emerged, together with local versions of overseas newspapers such as the Guardian.
Ironically, the financial travails of print newspapers have seen advertising emerging prominently on—and sometimes taking over—the front and back pages, as the press has tried desperately to retain its traditional revenue source.
REFs: H. Mayer, The Press in Australia (1964); N. Petersen, News Not Views (1993); G. Souter, Heralds and Angels (1991).