The Leader continued the Melbourne Leader (1856-1862). In its early years, the Leader published some critical essays, but offered no book reviews or literary gossip. It is well-known, however, for the journalistic contributions of Marcus Clarke and other writers such as Henry Britton, Charles Pearson and James Smith. By 1895, the subtitle of the Leader had expanded to read, 'Weekly Journal of News, Politics, Agriculture, Sport, Mining, Science and Literature', indicating the variety of content offered to readers in three to four dozen pages.
Less than ten percent of the Leader was devoted to fiction and most of that was imported from English shilling monthlies. Foreign writers whose work appeared in the first fifty years include Charles Dickens, Edward Bulwer Lytton, M. E. Braddon, Wilkie Collins, Walter Besant, Thomas Hardy, H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Very few colonial writers contributed fiction before 1900. Those that did included Mary Gaunt, David Falk, Ellerton Gay and Rosa Campbell Praed whose Miss Jacobsen's Chance (1886) was one of the few Australian serials that also appeared in book form.While the literary content of the Leader has received scholarly attention with Toni Johnson-Woods' Index to Serials in Australian Periodicals and Newspapers, little research has been conducted on the last fifty years of weekly newspaper's history. In the early twentieth century many Australian writers looked to its pages for reviews of their work and advertising, but its literary reputation remained consistent. In 1923 John Shaw Neilson wrote to A. G. Stephens, 'The Leader was always very grubby but most weeklies are grubby. They have to be'. Despite Neilson's description, the literary pages of the Leader played a significant part in the development of Australia's literary culture.