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The history of NZ newspapers would shame the Facebook generation

Christchurch’s Weekly Press in production around the turn of the 20th century. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library/PAColl-8763-2

In the 19th century, there were more newspapers in New Zealand per head of population than anywhere else in the world says writer Ian F Grant.

It’s well known – in fact, a celebrated part of West Coast mythology – that Hokitika at the height of the 19th century gold rush had 72 pubs. What’s not so well known is that the rambunctious goldfields town also had 14 newspapers.

Historian Ian F Grant’s new book, Lasting Impressions: The story of New Zealand’s newspapers, 1840-1920, reveals that an extraordinary 38 papers, many of them dailies, were launched on the West Coast between 1864 and 1898 – an indication of the miners’ interest in public affairs and hunger for information.

As goldfields settlements mushroomed and just as suddenly died, presses would be dismantled and moved to the scene of the next discovery.

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Publishing activity was only slightly less frenetic elsewhere. “During much of the 19th century,” Grant writes, “there were more newspapers in New Zealand per head of population than anywhere else in the world.” As early as 1860, more than 30 papers had been launched.

The author, who has worked in advertising and newspapers (he was a founding director of National Business Review), says he wrote Lasting Impressions as a social history. He portrays a society in which the local paper was considered almost as indispensable as the pub and the general store.

Early newspapers served as agents of social cohesion – the glue that held emerging communities together by not only providing important information, but also serving as a forum for debate on issues of common interest. Many were cranked out on hand-operated presses capable of producing as few as 100 copies a day.

At nearly 700 pages, Lasting Impressions – published in association with the Alexander Turnbull Library – is a doorstop of a book, painstakingly researched. Grant has dug deep and unearthed a wealth of detail about the early New Zealand press and the characters involved in it.

He says it wouldn’t have been possible without Papers Past, the National Library’s digital archive of early newspapers – a research tool not available to Guy Scholefield, whose Newspapers in New Zealand, published in 1958, was previously considered the definitive work on the subject.

Grant debunks the conventional view that the early New Zealand press was primarily political in character. Although acknowledging that several influential 19th-century politicians – Julius Vogel, Alfred Domett, Charles Fox, John Ballance – were former newspapermen, Grant says their participation in politics was often a natural consequence of their involvement in public affairs through journalism. But newspapers with purely political agendas usually didn’t last.

Typically, early papers were established by tradesmen printers, whose primary motivation was to put bread on the family table. Attracting advertisers was the priority, ahead of pushing political barrows that might have alienated commercial interests.

That didn’t mean, he says, that papers were not willing to court controversy. Editors and proprietors brought with them from Britain and Ireland a tradition of plain speaking and didn’t hesitate to attack prominent figures. Correspondence columns frequently included letters “of a length and ferocity today’s editors would blanch at”.

Grant notes that readers, as well as journalists, were highly literate. And although many early newspapermen had little formal education, his book makes clear that 19th-century newspapers displayed a level of eloquence and erudition that would shame the Facebook generation.

LASTING IMPRESSIONS: The story of New Zealand’s newspapers, 1840-1920, by Ian F Grant (Fraser Books, $69.50)

This article was first published in the November 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.