A newsletter can be defined as something between a magazine and a circular letter to members or subscribers of a special-interest group, be it a church congregation, sporting club, or a political party or lobby group. Newsletters contain current information and news about forthcoming events relating to the subscriber or membership group. They are also found in a form known as ‘news digests’. Before the digital age, they were usually roneoed or duplicated, occasionally printed and, in recent times, desktop published and laser printed. Most are now produced as online versions only.
The first Australian newsletter of any consequence was the News Letter of Australasia: Or Narrative of Events: A Letter to Send to Friends, which was published monthly in Melbourne from July 1856 to December 1862, just before the regular mail steamer left for England. Printed on rice paper, it contained a digest of the local news extracted from the Illustrated Journal of Australasia, a cover illustration of a local view and blank space at the end to allow the sender to add personal news.
As clubs, societies and church groups developed throughout Australia in the second half of the 19th century, the more esteemed ones such as the various Royal or Colonial Societies published a journal, while some of the smaller and/or local ones produced a newsletter. These were usually printed, so only those with some revenue base could afford to publish them. An example was the Monthly Church News (1898–99), published by the Anglican St Saviour’s Church in Redfern. It was probably fairly typical of its type: short-lived, limited circulation and relying on the goodwill of a volunteer editor.
The introduction of the typewriter in Australia in the last two decades of the 19th century greatly facilitated the production of newsletters for sports, social clubs and church groups, as did the subsequent invention of the roneo machine and later the photocopier.
A Trove search for ‘newsletters’ with ‘Australian content’ in the period 1900–2000 reveals 34,970 citations. Many would be duplicate entries but the high number gives an indication of the proliferation and wide circulation of newsletters.
In the 20th century, one of the major political newsletters of influence was controversial Sydney journalist Frank Browne’s Things I Hear (1946–77). It was initially issued fortnightly but from 1952 to 1972 it came out weekly; after that, its frequency varied from fortnightly to monthly. It rightly claimed to be ‘Australia’s oldest established news digest’, and it would have been read by most federal politicians and political journalists. (Sir) John Gorton once described it as ‘Things I Smear’.
Labour historian and champion of civil liberties Brian Fitzpatrick wrote and published the Melbourne monthlies Australian News-Review (‘Brian Fitzpatrick’s Monthly Digest of Australian, UN, World Events’) from 1951 to 1953 and Brian Fitzpatrick’s Labor News Letter from 1958 until his death in 1965.
Journalist, publisher, economist and one-time editor of the Australian, Max Newton, published a number of newsletters in the 1960s and early 1970s; a later commentator has claimed that these ‘were required reading around Parliament House’ in Canberra. Newton’s newsletter included Incentive (‘a weekly report on business trends and economic policy’, 1965–72), which at its peak had 800 subscribers. With a tendency to muckrake, its critics labelled it ‘Invective’. Its success encouraged Newton, in 1966, to acquire Management Newsletter: Analysing News and Trends for Australia Business Executives, which had been published since 1948, with distribution ‘confidential and restricted to director and management levels’; it continued until 1970. He also founded Tariff Week (1967–71), Australian Parliamentary and Legislative Review (1967–70) and Minerals Week (1967–71).
Other public affairs-related newsletters include the Canberra Bulletin of Public Administration, the newsletter of the ACT branch of the Australian Institute of Public Administration, published in print from 1982 until 2004 and then online, and In Touch (1996–2007), the newsletter of the conservative Institute of Public Affairs, published in Melbourne. Recent media-related newsletters include Communications Update: The Newsletter of the Media and Communications Council, published in print from 1985 until 2005 and then online, and Telemedia: The Monthly Newsletter on Australian Telecommunicationsand Media Law (1997–2003), both published in Sydney.
In 1984, Rev. Dr Tony Nancarrow, a Uniting Church minister and publisher, and founder of MediaCom, published The Australian Newsletter Editor’s Reference Manual: A Guide to Production, Design and Pasteup. It was followed by Nick Renton’s Public Relations, Newsletters and Internet Usage for Organisations (1997).
Public relations firms regularly issue current affairs-type newsletters to their clients. Affairs of State, a Melbourne PR firm, has published Letter from Melbourne since 1995, and Letter from Canberra since 2007. Both are now published only online.
Recorder, the official organ of the Melbourne branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, is a good example of a special interest newsletter that owes its longevity (nearing 280 issues) to a loyal group of subscribers and volunteer editors and contributors.
But even Recorder is now (since March 2006) also published online. It may follow the pattern of most other newsletters in being available only in digital format rather than traditional hard copy. But, like previous technological developments, digital publishing has given newsletters the potential for wider circulation. And, through blogging, one could argue that individuals rather than special-interest groups now publish a new hybrid form of the newsletter.