In 1880, when J. F. Archibald and John Haynes published the first issue of the Bulletin, weekly newspapers were flourishing in Sydney. But, unable to compete in this market, and facing a libel suit, the Bulletin struggled financially. When Archibald and Haynes were jailed in 1881 for libel, W. H. Traill (who had written the libellous article) took over a Bulletin which had become more widely known because of the court case. After Archibald and Haynes were released from prison, Traill employed them and allowed them to buy shares in the business. By 1886 Archibald had obtained a half share of the Bulletin and was once again in the editor's chair.
The early years of the Bulletin brought Traill a considerable profit, but literary reputation would be made later. The content of the early Bulletin was a mix of political comment and sensational news with several unfinished serials and narrative poems, although a few contributions from Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall suggest some quality. When Traill secured the services of cartoonists Livingston Hopkins and Phil May, and when a young poet called 'The Banjo' appeared at the end of Traill's term, the period marking the Bulletin's major contribution to Australian culture had begun.
The 1890s are widely regarded as a literary renaissance in Australia. During this decade, the Bulletin played a significant part in the encouragement and circulation of nationalist sentiments that remained influential far into the next century. Writers and illustrators were encouraged to present the 'real' Australia in verse and short sketches with a particular emphasis on the bush, espousing such values as egalitarianism, republicanism and national pride. Much more fiction and verse appeared in the Bulletin during the 1890s than the previous decade and the number of cartoons increased significantly. With his statements on federation, republicanism, socialism and immigration, the financial editor James Edmond contributed a strong voice to political debates that he would continue as editor during the early 1900s.
Most significantly, the Bulletin became a site where many of Australia's best-known writers achieved their first publication and developed their writing skills for a large audience. These included Barcroft Boake, Breaker Morant, Will Ogilvie, E. J. Brady, Ethel Turner, Roderic Quinn, Louise Mack, Victor Daley, Price Warung, Louis Becke, Randolph Bedford, Barbara Baynton and 'Steele Rudd'. The verse and short stories of A. B. 'Banjo' Paterson and Henry Lawson often featured in the Bulletin and these two writers initiated the 'Bulletin debate' on the real nature of Australian life, a debate which involved many other writers, including John le Gay Brereton, Francis Kenna, Edward Dyson, A. G. Stephens, Henry Cargill, Joseph Furphy and James Brunton Stephens.
A. G. Stephens joined the Bulletin in 1894, beginning a career which is widely regarded as one of the most significant in Australian literary history. After developing a column progessively called 'Books of the Day' and 'The Bulletin Book Exchange', Stephens took over the inside of the red cover of the Bulletin for his influential 'Red Page'. Here he delivered his opinions on literature with an international scope, but also with a distinct nationalism that encouraged and assessed the new national literature appearing in the Bulletin and elsewhere. From 1897, he directed the publishing arm of the Bulletin and assisted many writers into print for the first time. His editorship secured such publications as Steele Rudd's On Our Selection (1899), Joseph Furphy's Such is Life (1903), and a series of Bulletin anthologies.
Early in the 1900s Archibald suffered a breakdown and was committed to an asylum by his business manager William Macleod. James Edmond, who had joined the Bulletin in 1886, was appointed editor and soon replaced the nationalistic banner 'Australia for the Australians' with the more isolationist 'Australia for the White Man', a slogan which remained intact for almost sixty years. While the Bulletin is celebrated for its contribution to Australian literature, it has not escaped criticism for implicit and explicit racism. Chinese, in particular, were often targets for racist slurs in the Bulletin and Aborigines were frequently portrayed negatively.
The earlier literary renaissance had subsided by 1903, but many of the older Bulletin writers continued to contribute, maintaining the old character of the weekly. A. G. Stephens left in 1906 to start his own journal, the Bookfellow, taking several of his writers with him, including John Shaw Neilson whom Stephens had discovered and nurtured for several years. Archibald had recovered from his breakdown and assisted with the foundation of the Bulletin-sponsored magazine Lone Hand, providing more space for aspiring writers to place their work. Writers who made their first contributions to the Bulletin during this period included C. J. Dennis, Dorothea Mackellar, David McKee Wright, Mary Gilmore, Louis Esson, Hugh McCrae and Jack McLaren. In addition to the writers of the Bulletin, the quality of illustration expanded with contributions from Norman Lindsay, Lionel Lindsay, Will Dyson, Ambrose Dyson, David Low, D. H. Souter, Alf Vincent, Frank Mahony, George Lambert, Percy Leason and Ted Scorefield.
When James Edmond became editor in 1903, S. H. Prior took his place as finance editor. By 1912 Prior was assistant editor and he ascended to the editor's chair after Edmond's retirement in 1915. Archibald had sold Prior his shares to the Bulletin in 1914 and when Prior accepted the duties of managing director after Macleod's retirement in 1927, he attained financial control of the company, a control that he and his family retained until 1960.
During Prior's term as editor, the bush had less influence on the character of the Bulletin and the suburbs became more and more a theme for articles, stories and cartoons. The 'Red Page' editor David McKee Wright (1916-1928) played a significant part in this by asserting that the earlier rural orientation of the Bulletin had lost its power. Inspired by late-Victorian and light Edwardian verse, he encouraged writers to concentrate on metropolitan topics. Younger writers who contributed to the 'Red Page' at this time included Kenneth Slessor, Robert D. FitzGerald, Brian Penton, Zora Cross, Elizabeth Riddell, Alice Jackson and Jack Lindsay. In addition, Vance Palmer, Nettie Palmer and Louis Esson contributed many reviews.
In the late 1920s Prior encouraged Australian writing with a novel contest, attracting 536 manuscripts in 1928 and 275 manuscripts in 1929. Winners in these competions included Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw for A House is Built, Katharine Susannah Prichard for Coonardoo and Vance Palmer for The Passage.
When S. H. Prior died in 1933, John Webb, a Bulletin employee since 1920, was appointed editor. Holding this position until 1948, Webb reinforced the White Australia policy introduced by James Edmond and asserted an anti-Labor stance despite having little respect for the conservative alternative. David Adams replaced Webb in 1948 and guided the Bulletin through to 1961, a period where the reputation and circulation of the paper steadily declined. The success of the Australian Woman's Mirror (a Bulletin stable-mate) during the 1930s and 1940s helped to keep the Bulletin afloat, but the success of the rival Australian Women's Weekly took many of the Mirror's readers and the Bulletin suffered, providing its shareholders little to no return by the late 1950s.
The literary content during this period increased significantly due to the influence of Douglas Stewart who served as 'Red Page' editor between 1940 and 1961. Influenced by Norman Lindsay, Stewart maintained a strong anti-modernist editorial policy which helped to extend Bulletin traditions throughout his term. Except for notable exceptions A.D. Hope and John Manifold who openly refused to publish in the Bulletin, many significant poets appeared under Stewart's editorship. These included Douglas Stewart, Judith Wright, David Campbell, Geoffrey Dutton, Rosemary Dobson, Francis Webb, Nancy Keesing, R. D. FitzGerald, James McAuley, Ray Mathew, David Rowbotham, Nancy Cato, Will Lawson, Roderic Quinn, Roland Robinson, Mary Finnin, E. J. Brady and Vivian Smith. The Bulletin continued to support short fiction, publishing many stories from writers such as Brian James, Kylie Tennant, Henrietta Drake-Brockman, Eleanor Dark, Vance Palmer and Hal Porter. The S. H. Prior Memorial Prize for fiction was awarded between 1935 and 1946.
The prominent literary character of the Bulletin ended in 1961 when it was bought by Consolidated Press and merged with the Observer. Seen by many as outdated, the Bulletin eventually shifted to the news format that continued until its demise in 2008. Archibald himself predicted that the 'clever youth' he had fostered would eventually 'become a dull old man'. As the new editor, one of Donald Horne's first actions was to remove 'Australia for the White Man' from the banner, signalling a change in character which included a greater interest in the Asia-Pacific region and support for immigration reform.
The 'Red Page' gradually changed into a standard book section following Stewart's departure. But, despite this change, many significant writers appeared in the Bulletin during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly fiction writers such as Xavier Herbert, Thomas Keneally, Craig McGregor, Hal Porter, Desmond O'Grady and Frank Moorhouse. The transitional period of the new Bulletin is also remembered for a controversial acrostic poem pseudonymously contributed by Gwen Harwood. Many of the writers who had appeared in the Bulletin since 1880 were celebrated in a 1980 centennial issue. In response to the positive reception of this section a quarterly literary supplement was edited by Geoffrey Dutton, continuing until 1985. But, except for these years, the Bulletin made little contribution to Australian literature after 1961.
In late 2007 James Packer sold his family's media assets, including Australian Consolidated Press, to the private equity firm CVC Asia Pacific. Four months later, CVC announced that the Bulletin would cease publication. The last issue, with a cover story titled 'Why We Love Australia', was published on 23 January 2008 and dated 29 January 2008. Fittingly, it included essays on Australia's national identity by prominent writers Richard Flanagan, Tom Keneally and Frank Moorhouse.