A New Zealand newspaper war ignited 100 years ago revolutionised the way stories were told to readers – just as the internet has transformed today’s media landscape.
The Marlborough Express celebrated its 150th anniversary earlier this year, but owner Fairfax Media has now flagged cutting the newspaper’s publishing days some time next year as a “likely scenario”.
All the while, digital channels such as Facebook are swallowing the news. So it wasn’t a surprise when a recently leaked memo from digital news site Stuff to its journalists revealed its 8am and 4pm news conferences would focus on stories likely to go “viral”. With half the audience now on mobile phones and checking high-traffic sites such as the MailOnline, Stuff news bosses are chasing “your best social/shareable content”.
In comparison, the newspapers of a century ago may seem dustily indigestible. But the recent availability of digital editions of the Sun, a feisty, pioneering daily, shows stories that would hold their own as clickbait today. In 1914, the Sun quickly conquered Christchurch’s evening newspaper market. Then it took on Auckland, walking into one of this country’s fiercest newspaper wars.
By the time these inky skirmishes ended, the media landscape was transformed. A once dull and complacent industry was producing lively, brightly presented papers that resonated with readers’ daily lives.
With its liberal use of news pictures and bright layout, the Sun acknowledged its debt to the populist Daily Mail, the first British paper to boast a million readers. Sydney weekly Truth, which launched a “Maoriland” edition in 1905, was an obvious, less-respectable, influence.
Behind the enterprise was a pushy young Australian named Ted Huie. Until 1912, he had edited the Evening News, produced by the Christchurch Press. In all its editions, the Press buried the news of the day beneath pages of classified advertisements.
By the turn of the 20th century, high-speed rotary printing had paved the way for pages featuring photographs and illustrations. But daily metropolitan newspapers in New Zealand, as elsewhere, took themselves so seriously that pictures of any sort were frowned on as frivolous and undignified.
Big papers such as the Press had little incentive to change. Technological breakthroughs of the latter 19th century – telegraph, railways and submarine cable – guaranteed their prosperity. All belonged to a national agency that shared wire news, and all were content to present the same news in the same boring way. The Sun would change all that.
$12 million investment
In February 1914, Huie launched his paper into a market dominated by the Evening News and the rival Christchurch Star, owned by the Lyttelton Times. His backers, including political heavyweights, sunk close to $12 million in today’s dollars into it.
Huie’s Sun was full of bright and populist headlines, highly literate and targeted at female readers. Importantly, photographs and illustrations were sprinkled through its pages. According to the Press history, the new paper “caused something of a sensation among the public and in the industry … [the Sun] quickly gathered a substantial circulation and advertising support”.
But it was the elegantly written and, above all, local content that made the Sun such an innovator. Writer Robin Hyde, a sometime staff member, wrote: “All Sun reporters were ‘bush-rangers’ – wandering hither and thither to pick up local incident, tint with local colour and present in ‘snappy’ style.”
These were the stories that struck common chords a century ago, getting people talking over the back fences, in the pub or at the butcher’s shop.
The inaugural edition celebrated the “seat-warmers” of Cathedral Square: “The old men sit in the shade or in the dappled sunlight that filters through the trees. All day they sit there, and across the space of asphalt stare at the United Service Hotel, and the buildings beside it … they are of the hopeless type; not colonial, though they may be, but men who have lost keenness in the fight, and are content to be discontent and will sit there until the twilight. Presently they will amble off to a home somewhere, and the next day they will be on the seats again.”
Six months after the paper’s launch, war in Europe was declared. Demand for news soared, and like other newspapers, the Sun published special war editions. Here, as elsewhere, this would be a war communicated in the written word – this was the last great world event wholly covered in print.
Like more established papers, the Sun would struggle with the cumbersome military news censorship regime. Days after war began, the censor accused Huie of publishing a “dangerous article” when the Sun innocently quantified numbers of departing soldiers. Huie called the rules “uncalled for” but promised to co-operate.
The “bush-rangers” of the Sun were often in trouble. On one occasion, the Governor (later Governor-General), Lord Liverpool, dressed down a reporter spotted taking notes at a Christchurch military parade. His salty retort – “Why the hell are you here? Damn it, by what right?” – gained national attention. Language of this kind was not expected from the Queen’s representative. The Governor’s ill-considered remarks ended up in print, and today it is easy to imagine news of this kind going viral.
The exhaustive newsgathering paid off; the paper soon outstripped its rivals. Three years after the launch of the Sun, the Press abandoned its evening edition and the Sun’s circulation was twice that of the Star. The Sun tightened its profitable grip, introducing literary competitions and publishing sleek weekend supplements.
Head to head
Could the upstart repeat its success in Auckland? In 1925, Huie persuaded his directors to go head-to-head with the established, deep-pocketed evening Auckland Star. He invested heavily: a substantial building on the corner of Wyndham and Albert Sts, topped off with the crest of a risen sun, soon housed a large reporting staff and printing presses. The timing was not good. Print’s domination of the media was ending by the mid-1920s, as the first public radio broadcasts crackled out of stations in Dunedin, then Auckland. The Wall Street sharemarket crash was just a few years away.
The Auckland Sun nevertheless launched in style in March 1927, as 400 invited guests danced on the editorial floor to a string quartet. With its elegant layout, page one news and crisp use of photographs, the paper appeared to exemplify a booming, sophisticated metropolis. Sales soon topped 30,000 copies on a Saturday.
In his book Confessions of a Journalist, writer Pat Lawlor recalled: “For the first time in its history, Auckland has a truly modern paper with a front page presentation of news in good splash headings. The Auckland Star had garnished up its pages for the fight, but kept fairly close to the old-time New Zealand traditions in the presentation of news.”
The mass circulation NZ Herald, still burying its news deep inside its pages, exemplified that tradition. It sniffly described the Auckland Sun as offering a “style of journalism unfamiliar in New Zealand”. Both of Auckland’s daily papers would soon be forced to move downmarket as a vicious newspaper war unfolded.
Vying for scoops
This time it would be a circulation-hungry NZ Truth – not the Sun – that set the agenda. In 1928 and throughout 1929, Truth vied week by week with the Sun, Auckland Star and Herald for “scoops” in the case of the mysterious death of teenager Elsie Walker, whose body was found at a Tamaki quarry. She had died of a head injury.
Elsie, 17, disappeared from her home near Tauranga in 1928 and was not found until five days later. Police fumbling dragged out the investigation as public interest mounted, and newspapers outdid each other to paint a picture of a sinister abduction of an innocent. The case was never solved, but the finger was pointed at her cousin William Bayly, who was later hanged for the murder of two of his neighbours.
The Herald, which had all but ignored the case, ended up devoting half a broadsheet page a day to what became the biggest crime story of the inter-war period.
The Sun had other things on its mind, its energies increasingly devoted to staying afloat as the global economy tanked.
In 1929, the Brett Company, the Auckland Star’s wealthy publishers, went south and bought out Huie’s evening competitor, the Christchurch Star. It was not a good omen. In September 1930, Auckland’s Sun folded, with the loss of 100 jobs. New Zealand Newspapers, the powerful entity that now owned the Auckland Star and Christchurch Star, paid $6 million for the paper. The Press published its first news photograph that same year.
The sudden closure of the Sun at a time of economic downturn would lead to bitterness and recrimination. Huie talked of his disappointment the Auckland business community hadn’t supported the paper “more liberally in the matter of advertising”.
Robin Hyde, in her book Journalese, went further: “Important advertisers whose support would have spelt the difference between success and failure had been influenced by strategies less like war with the gloves off than like a chunk of lead comfortably concealed in the opponent’s boxing glove.”
Wellington-based journalist Lawlor chose to reprise the long-running rivalry between the capital and Auckland: “If ever there was a parochially minded population, it is to be found in this Auckland city. There is but one moon the world over, but in Auckland it is an Auckland moon. Same with the sun – therefore Auckland resented the appearance of another Sun made in Christchurch.”
NZ Truth was more accurate: “… the Sun was pitting itself against two of the soundest and most capably managed newspapers in the Dominion that, over a long period, had built up a very big reserve for just such an emergency. They could, and did, set a financial pace which the Sun could not foot, and in addition to this there was the fact that the storm clouds of depression were starting to gather.”
Huie returned home. Although he worked to keep the Christchurch Sun afloat, it would be sold to NZ Newspapers in 1935. An era of transformation in local journalism was over.
Lawlor deserves the last word: “[The Sun] completely revolutionised the local newspaper world by its progressive methods. Here was a newspaper of originality … Practically every worthwhile development in the presentation of news was introduced by the Sun; in fact its example was followed (often feebly imitated) by papers in other centres.”
Launching pad for writers
Over 21 years, the Christchurch and Auckland Sun newspapers provided a springboard for New Zealand letters. Their literary pages offered space (and money) to a generation of rising poets, short-story writers and essayists.
Crime writer Ngaio Marsh was first published in the Sun in the early 1920s; a young Denis Glover later won a limerick competition. Eileen Duggan, Rex Fairburn, Robin Hyde, RAK Mason and future Listener editor Monte Holcroft would all be published there.
To see digital editions of the Sun, go to paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.