The first news agencies were set up to provide foreign news for newspapers that couldn’t afford their own correspondents. They were part of the 19th-century move towards greater commercialisation of news and were able to exploit the new technologies of the telegraph and underwater cabling.
The agencies were the main sources of international news, and heralded the era of news as a globalised commodity. In 1859, the main agencies of the time—Havas in France, Wolff in Germany and Reuters in Britain—signed an agreement that divided the regions of the world among them. Reuters got Australia and the other countries of imperial Britain. It opened an office in Melbourne in 1878 and set up agreements with local newspapers for the supply of international news.
At this time Australia had a powerful domestic news market, with strong internal rivalries—most notably between the Melbourne-based Argus and Age. Each built up its own grouping of Melbourne/Sydney/Adelaide newspapers with sufficient resources to set up London bureaux to supplement Reuters’ service, in addition to selling domestic news in Australia. As it was more cost-effective to pool resources, domestic news agencies began to emerge. In 1895, the Argus and Age groups came together to form the Australian Press Association (APA). In 1912, the Melbourne Herald broke with the APA and joined with the Sydney Sun to form the United Cable Service (also known as United Services Limited, or USL). In 1935, the two services merged to create Australian Associated Press (AAP), which became Australia’s first and to date its only national domestic news agency. It was set up and run by the press barons as a vehicle for marketing their product to smaller news operations across the country as well as to New Zealand, and it held the Australian rights to Reuters.
After the advent of radio in the 1920s, the fledgling ABC began a basic news service for its own stations in the 1930s, which it also contracted out to commercial radio stations. News was mainly sourced from the press, with AAP providing limited access to international material via its links with Reuters. After World War II, the ABC began a concerted campaign to establish its own independent news service, finally succeeding in 1947. While it could still rely on Reuters and other international news agencies for international news, it was required to generate its own domestic content.
With the ABC effectively a domestic broadcast news agency, the small size of the local market restricted the growth of AAP, which until the 1970s mainly functioned as a distributor of overseas news to the Australian press. Its role expanded in the 1970s when it took over statebased regional agencies such as Australian United Press (NSW) and Vicpress. AAP then began its own operations as a domestic news-gathering agency within Australia, and signed agreements with the commercial television stations to provide them with an AAP-Reuters service. It established its own Canberra bureau in 1971. Since then, it has grown alongside its international counterparts, as all media have increasingly come to depend on news agency material. Even the ABC has expanded its reliance on agency news, now being permitted to use AAP material in addition to that of the international agencies.
The 2001 Sources of News and Current Affairs study showed that in Australia AAP is at the very least a safety net, and sometimes the sole source of news across all media. Subsequent global studies indicate that reliance on agency news is increasing with the advent of 24/7 radio, television and online news. News agencies are diversifying into other activities, filling gaps that are left as conventional news outlets seek to trim their costs. AAP, now the major news agency for Oceania, has links to the main news agencies from the region as well as the rest of the world. It sifts through the material from the global agencies in order to funnel it through to its domestic news clients. It has its own staff of reporters around the country so it is also a centralised provider of local and national news as well as specialist news in areas such as business, finance and digital technology. In addition to providing print, video and audio content, it continues to diversify into other areas such as media monitoring and sub-editing services.
REFs: P. Putnis, ‘How the International News Agency Business Model Failed—Reuters in Australia, 1877–1895’, Media History, 12(1) (2006); T. Rantanen, ‘The Globalization of Electronic News in the 19th Century’, Media, Culture and Society, 19 (1997).