‘Australian historians have tended to neglect the history of the Australian press,’ wrote economist W.M. Corden in an overview of newspaper ownership in Australia published in Meanjin in 1956. Until then, those histories had tended to focus on the press in the colonial era—notably James Bonwick’s Early Struggles of the Australian Press (1890)—and on individual, usually colonial, newspapers, including the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser and the Australian. W.A. McNair’s Radio Advertising in Australia (1937) constituted the first major study of Australian broadcasting, and was joined by W. Macmahon Ball’s Press, Radio and World Affairs in 1938.
Corden’s article was followed by W. Sprague Holden’s Australia Goes to Press (1961), focused on 15 metropolitan dailies, and a major overview of ‘The Daily Papers’ by K.S. Inglis in Australian Civilisation (1962). Then came Henry Mayer’s seminal The Press in Australia (1964), which aimed, in part, to ‘give the basic facts about the history, structure and content of the Australian Press’.
State-based histories of the press included George H. Pitt on South Australia (1946) and E. Morris Miller on Tasmania (1973). New South Wales was best served, with authoritative histories up to 1945 by R.B. Walker (1976 and 1980).
Major institutional histories included Gavin Souter’s Company of Heralds (1981), commemorating the 150th anniversary of John Fairfax & Sons, and Inglis’s This is the ABC (1983), marking the broadcaster’s 50th anniversary. They complemented major industrial histories: Jim Hagan’s Printers and Politics (1966) and C.J. Lloyd’s 1985 history of the Australian Journalists’ Association (now the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance).
In Australians: A Guide to Sources (1987), Mayer could still lament that ‘the literature on our media is scanty’. A year later, in a bibliographical essay in Australian Cultural History focused on journalism, John Henningham expressed surprise that ‘200 years of Australian history have not produced a comprehensive study of Australian journalism’.
Social and political historians tended to use newspapers uncritically as contemporary journals of record, with little attention to the contexts in which they were produced. Australia’s federal structure meant that it was difficult to generate overviews of the press in Australia without studies of the press in each state. Established media archives were scarce, and not always open to independent researchers. Back-issues of some newspapers and magazines were not extant. Broadcast material was even more elusive, or very costly to access.
Despite the sheer volume of media output, often with little in the way of finding aids such as indexes, the historiography of the Australia media has expanded considerably since the Bicentenary. This was no doubt due in part to the proliferation of media and communications courses in Australian universities. The majority of scholarship in the field over the last 30 years has been undertaken outside history departments—by academics with disciplinary backgrounds in media, communications, cultural studies, literature and political science, as well as by independent scholars.
The most important contribution to Australian journalism history remains Ann Curthoys and Julianne Schultz’s Journalism: Print, Politics and Popular Culture (1999). It was augmented by Denis Cryle’s study of colonial journalism, Disreputable Profession (1997), and major studies of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery (by C.J. Lloyd, 1998) and news at the ABC (Neville Petersen, 1993 and 1999).
G. Gilson and J. Zubrzycki’s pioneering Foreign Press in Australia (1966) was complemented by an edited book by A. Ata and C. Ryan (1989). Substantial studies of Indigenous media in Australia began to appear from Michael Meadows in the 1990s, while Michael Rose (1996) published a history of Aboriginal print journalism.
Histories of the press in eastern Australia blossomed. Rod Kirkpatrick’s histories of the provincial press in Queensland (1984 and 2008), New South Wales (2000) and Victoria (2010) were followed by his Short History of the Australian Country Press (2000). Cryle wrote a social and political history of the press in colonial Queensland (1989), and Elizabeth Morrison a history of the press in 19th-century country Victoria (2005). Cryle (2008) also published a history of the first 25 years of the Australian (est. 1964).
Frank S. Greenop’s History of Magazine Publishing in Australia (1947) remains a singular work. Australian Magazines of the Twentieth Century, a sub-set of the AustLit database, presents information about around 100 magazines, generally more literary and intellectual than popular, and the Australian Women’s Weekly had been a favourite subject for historians.
Institutional histories included Souter’s second volume on Fairfax (1991) and Bridget Griffen-Foley’s The House of Packer (1999), while Robert Crawford wrote about the history of the advertising industry (2008). They built on in-house commemorations (such as Fairfax’s A Century of Journalism, 1981) and compilations (Geoffrey Hutton and Les Tanner’s 125 Years of Age, 1979).
Biographies of media barons ranged from the uncritical (R.S. Whitington on Sir Frank Packer, 1971, and Ronald Younger on Sir Keith Murdoch, 2003) to the critical (Paul Barry on Kerry Packer, 1993 and 2006, and Morrison on David Syme, 2014) and the iconoclastic (T.D.C. Roberts’ thesis on Keith Murdoch, 2013). With the exception of George Munster’s A Paper Prince (1985), there has been little sustained scholarship on Rupert Murdoch’s activities in Australia.
Inglis’s second volume on the history of the ABC (2006) was augmented by histories of SBS (by Ien Ang, Gay Hawkins and Lamia Daboussy, 2008), commercial radio (Griffen-Foley, 2009), commercial television (Nick Herd, 2012) and talkback radio (Liz Gould’s PhD thesis, 2012). Community radio was examined in Phoebe Thornley’s PhD thesis (1999) and by a major report (2002) for the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. Albert Moran and Chris Keating’s Historical Dictionary of Australian Radio and Television (2007) was published internationally.
Memoirs, autobiographies and biographies of (often male) editors, journalists and broadcasters proliferated, particularly by foreign and war correspondents. These have been augmented by John Tebbutt’s thesis on the history of foreign correspondents (2003) and Fay Anderson and Richard Trembath’s Witnesses to War (2011), and by studies of Australian journalism and the Vietnam War (Trish Payne, 2007) and Asia (Prue Torney-Parlicki, 2000).
In 1999, Rod Kirkpatrick and Victor Isaacs formed the Australian Newspaper History Group (ANHG), which publishes substantial bi-monthly newsletters keeping members informed of contemporary happenings in the press and of new work undertaken on Australian press history. The ANHG also publishes timelines and bibliographies. Also in 1999, media historians and practitioners came together at the Australian Media Traditions conference, now a biennial event. The papers of the inaugural conference were published in a special media history issue (no. 99) of Media International Australia (MIA).
With no dedicated Australian journal in the field, media historians publish in a range of journals, from MIA and Australian Studies in Journalism to History Australia and Australian Historical Studies. Graeme Osborne and Denis Cryle edited an ‘Australasian Media History in 2002’ issue of Media History.
Many Australian scholars have made important contributions to the history and study of new media, but it has tended to be focused on the international rather than the Australian context. Such works include Melanie Swalwell and Jason Wilson’s edited book on the cultural history of computer gaming (2008). In Australian internet studies, there has not been a book to succeed Gerard Goggin’s major edited collection, Virtual Nation (2004). Much important work on new media has been published in successive editions of The Media and Communications in Australia, now edited by Stuart Cunningham and Sue Turnbull, and in special issues of Australian journals ranging from MIA to the Fibreculture Journal.
Australia’s first Centre for Media History (CMH) was formed at Macquarie University in Sydney in 2007. It took over hosting of the Australian Media History Listserv and the Australian Media History Database (a database of researchers working on current projects, and listings of resources in the field) from the ARC Cultural Research Network (2004–09). It also provides a digital home for the ANHG, and runs the Media Archives Project Database, a register of archives held in private hands.
The Australian Newspaper Plan aims to collect and preserve every newspaper published in Australia, while since 2007 the Australian Newspaper Digitisation Program has aimed to make freely available online through the National Library of Australia’s Trove as many Australian newspapers as possible.
Topics still to attract the sustained interest of Australian historians range from printing, suburban newspapers, student media and public relations to the Herald and Weekly Times, the media in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, and reporting and reviewing genres. And there is more to do to situate the Australian media in a transnational context, building on work by scholars including Peter Putnis (news), Virginia Madsen (radio documentary), David Goodman and Susan Smulyan (radio drama), Kevin Patrick (comics) and Simon J. Potter (imperial communication).