The history of NZ newspapers would shame the Facebook generation

by Karl du Fresne / 13 November, 2018
Christchurch’s Weekly Press in production around the turn of the 20th century. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

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

RelatedArticlesModule - History of NZ newspapers Ian F Grant

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.

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.

Latest

The Heart Dances: Lifting the lid on the culture clash behind ‘The Piano’ ballet
104740 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Movies

The Heart Dances: Lifting the lid on the culture c…

by Russell Baillie

Documentary offers an intriguing look at the clash of artistic sensibilities behind adapting The Piano into a ballet.

Read more
How this remarkable native insect is being saved
104836 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Planet

How this remarkable native insect is being saved

by Jenny Nicholls

Principles of bird conservation are helping to save another remarkable native you’ve never heard of.

Read more
Environment Ministry 'unashamedly proud' of bleak report's honesty
104868 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Planet

Environment Ministry 'unashamedly proud' of bleak…

by RNZ

The Secretary for the Environment Vicky Robertson said she was proud of the report's honesty and it was an important stocktake for the country.

Read more
The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke than demonic
104712 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Television

The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke…

by Diana Wichtel

Diana Wichtel reviews a new American TV series based on the hit Kiwi comedy.

Read more
Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gender and identity
104230 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Books

Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gend…

by Brigid Feehan

In her latest novel, Julie Cohen traces the parallel male and female lives of a single character.

Read more
Win a copy of Sir David Attenborough's Life on Earth: 40th Anniversary Edition
104844 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Win

Win a copy of Sir David Attenborough's Life on Ear…

by The Listener

To celebrate Sir David Attenborough season on Sky, we are giving away copies of his book Life on Earth: 40th Anniversary Edition.

Read more
The Kiwi behind the powerful Aspen Institute's Queenstown launch
104788 2019-04-18 09:00:50Z Profiles

The Kiwi behind the powerful Aspen Institute's Que…

by Clare de Lore

Thanks to the determination of Christine Maiden, NZ has joined an international leadership network that aims to work on issues important to the future

Read more
Science must trump ideology in the GE debate
104784 2019-04-18 08:52:29Z Politics

Science must trump ideology in the GE debate

by The Listener

A New Zealand-developed super-grass that appears to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions might be blocked in this country by the Green Party.

Read more