SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Australia’s oldest surviving newspaper began as the four-page weekly Sydney Herald on 18 April 1831, founded by William McGarvie, Alfred Ward Stephens and Frederick Michael Stokes under ‘the broad banner of British freedom, protection and law’.
Its target readership—the colony’s prosperous upper and middle classes—would also be its advertisers. Its pledge (Alexander Pope’s ‘In moderation placing all my glory’) set it above more strident rivals, while promising to be a watchdog on government.
Soon underpinned by a near-monopoly on classified advertising, it was a business model that took the Herald through to the 21st century and the challenge of a world turning away from print. In between, the Herald recorded the growth of a colony of 50,000 Europeans (including 20,000 convicts) into a multicultural nation of about 23 million. For most of that time, it was in the hands of the Fairfax family, beginning with printer, journalist and manager John Fairfax who, with journalist Charles Kemp, bought out Stokes, the last of the founders, on 8 February 1841. By then, the paper was a daily (from 1 October 1840) and the colony’s leading journal with a circulation of 3100. On 1 August 1842, it became the Sydney Morning Herald. A severe depression soon saw off older rivals and it began to be called ‘Granny’, not always with affection.
The Herald files are a kaleidoscope of firsthand reporting of news that shook or shaped Australia. The gold rush began with a Herald scoop on 2 May 1851. As a ‘journal of record’, Herald reports on parliament, courts and public meetings sometimes took up two pages. The end of convict transportation—long sought by the Herald—came in 1853, the year John Fairfax became sole proprietor. Under its first official editor, Rev. John West, it pushed for Federation from 1854; support for a republic did not come until 1999. Beginning with the Sudan in 1885, its war correspondents covered all conflicts involving Australians, except World War I (official correspondents only) and Vietnam (to much subsequent criticism).
The rise of trade unions and the Labor Party caused concern. Although the conservative Herald insisted it put principles before party, it was not until 1961 that it supported the unsuccessful attempt by federal Labor under Arthur Calwell to oust the Menzies Coalition government. In New South Wales, it was 2003 before Labor was backed.
Gold brought a flood of nation-building immigrants, transforming Herald circulation and its ‘rivers of gold’: the classifieds. By century’s end, average daily circulation was pushing 70,000. In 1914, it was 120,000 and on its 100th birthday it was 220,000.
News went on page one for the first time on 15 April 1944, and two years later circulation passed 300,000. But it was soon overtaken by (Sir) Frank Packer’s resurgent morning tabloid, the Daily Telegraph. With the end of newsprint rationing in 1949 came the Sunday Herald; it was merged with the Sunday Sun to create a new tabloid, the Sun-Herald, in 1953.
By 1930, a fourth-generation Fairfax, (Sir) Warwick Oswald, was leading the company, which published A Century of Journalism in 1931. Sir Warwick’s pledge in 1953 to preserve ‘old-fashioned virtues’ was to prove a hindrance to the incoming editor, John Douglas Pringle, and others who followed, in attempts to improve design and content for a more diversified readership.
Although a talented team of writers—including women liberated from the social pages—kept up the paper’s reputation for quality journalism, it was not until Warwick’s son James replaced him as chairman in 1977 that the Herald began a serious fightback.
In late 1980, Vic Carroll became editor and the Herald was transformed with separate tabloid lifestyle and listing sections. Saturday’s features section was expanded, joined in 1984 by the high-quality weekly colour magazine Good Weekend.
Page one and beyond became a mix of hard and ‘soft’ news, sometimes with comment, eye-catching photographs and graphics. Layout was cleaner, and column widths expanded. The news pages gained agenda-setting features, many dealing with social issues. ‘Stay in Touch’, a clever and irreverent page for commuters, joined the more traditional fare of ‘Column 8’, further dispelling the paper’s staid image.
A 10-year review of the ‘new Herald’ in 1991 found it had increased its appeal to both readers and advertisers, holding its high-earning and better-educated buyers with a lift in popularity among those aged 18 to 34.
But by then there had been dramatic changes. The Herald was in new hands. In 1987, Warwick’s youngest son, Warwick Geoffrey Oswald, persisted with a $2 billion takeover despite a worldwide sharemarket collapse. When the debt could not be serviced, the receivers moved in and the last Fairfax proprietor left the building on 10 December 1990. Staff cuts became the order of the day—and the future. The Canadian Conrad Black became the active proprietor in 1991, but sold in 1996 when the Commonwealth government refused to allow him to take a controlling interest. His legacy was a $330 million printing plant that came on stream in late 1995, the year the Herald launched its website, smh.com.au.
There was a resurgence—Saturday’s redesigned edition regularly passed 400,000. Without a dominant shareholder, editors set policy and in 1997 the Herald’s line was described as ‘liberal, rather than conservative … on most of the social issues of the day’.
Circulation held up into the next decade, but by its end the internet had robbed the Herald of its classified advertising dominance and, with broadband’s rise, more potential buyers chose to read the paper free on smh.com.au. Print journalists took further cuts, including the outsourcing of sub-editing.
Despite this—and the instability of 20 years of takeover rumours featuring names ranging from Packer, Murdoch and Kerry Stokes to Gina Rinehart—Herald writers, photographers and sub-editors continued to win major journalism awards. It was Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers’ Association Newspaper of the Year in 2009 and 2010. But the print marketplace was rapidly diminishing, and the Australian continued to nibble at the Herald’s dominance of high-end readership.
At the end of 2011, Fairfax Media’s chief executive, Greg Hywood, said a business model was being built around a future in digital distribution. Demand meant printed newspapers would continue ‘for the foreseeable future’, but with a difference: ‘They will be more targeted, they will be probably higher priced, the days of mass distribution are over.’
In June 2012, it was announced that 1900 more jobs would go in the next three years. The giant Chullora printing plant would close in 2014, with the Herald switching to regional presses. Printed copies were reined in by 15 per cent in the first year. ‘Digital first’ increasingly became the motto. The new round of departures included the editor-in-chief and the editor. For the first time in 158 years, no editor was appointed. The title of editor was dropped.
On 4 March 2013, the weekday Herald went tabloid—or ‘compact’ as the Herald preferred to call it. It was a return in size to the original Herald but, with even stronger use of photographs and graphics, there was no resemblance to the unrelieved columns of black type of 1831. The broadsheet pages of the flagship Saturday Herald were given a reprieve until March 2014.
The Herald’s digital life was a much better story. In early 2014, Enhanced Media Metrics Australia (EMMA) released figures for 2013, which showed the Herald leading all Australian mastheads across all platforms—print, web, mobile and tablet—with a readership of 4.75 million. This included six months with a paywall in place on the website.
Despite having far more readers than ever, the Herald newsroom—the source of the quality, in-depth journalism that drove cross-platform success—continued to shrink. Sharing across mastheads, including merging the bureaux of the Herald and the Age in Canberra, and coverage of business and other national issues, stretched numbers. Joint and single-masthead investigations remained a benchmark.
The revenue challenge persisted. Increasingly, the Herald had been forced to rely on dwindling front-of-paper display advertising. But in 2014, after a litany of missed opportunities with internet ‘start-ups’ that stole the masthead’s classified advertising monopoly, Fairfax Media signalled a fight-back. It would refocus on classifieds and— in print in particular—its ‘core highly engaged readership’. The original business model of 183 years earlier was back on the table.
REFs: John Fairfax Archives; G. Souter, Company of Heralds (1981) and Heralds and Angels (1991).