Pressing on, James Hollings 

Lasting Impressions: The Story of New Zealand’s Newspapers, 1840–1920
Ian F Grant
Fraser Books, in association with the Alexander Turnbull Library, $69.50,
ISBN 9780994136046

At a time when journalism is in crisis, with collapsing revenues and governments and elites indifferent to and even resentful of its role in a healthy democracy, there is much to learn from this landmark addition to New Zealand’s journalism historiography.

From the very first days of European settlement, newspapers, and journalists, were fighting the same battles they are now: with uncertain revenues, fickle, often polarised readerships, repressive governments and interfering local oligarchs. As this book shows, in unprecedented detail, newspapers were founded in their hundreds, and often lived, like butterflies, vivid but very short lives. They serve as an underviewed window into the lives, politics, commerce and daily lives of early New Zealand.

Take the New Zealand Advertiser and Bay of Islands Gazette. First published in June 1840, only four months after Hobson signed the Treaty of Waitangi, it was a simple four-page weekly, intended as a semi-official organ to trumpet government decrees, supported by advertising for local businesses. But Hobson reckoned without the personality of his first editor, the grandly handled Reverend Barzillai Quaife. A man of radical views, who has been described as a kind of “one person Amnesty International”, Quaife set to work, despite the difficulties of establishing a press in the fledgling, wild settlement of Russell, including a wooden press “so old and effaced as to make the page all but unreadable”.

Several issues of the Advertiser appeared, with Quaife initially enthusiastic in support of Hobson. However, his non-conformist instincts soon got the better of him, and he started giving voice to his readers, particularly those unable to occupy land they thought they had bought. Even this mild criticism was too much for the administration, and Quaife was summoned and told to suspend publication unless he paid a surety of £600 against libel or blasphemy – a huge sum that effectively closed the paper.

In his last editorial, in December 1840, Quaife intoned: 

Salus populi, suprema lex [let the welfare of the people be the supreme law] is or ought to be the basis of all Government …. There is a Governor at a little distance from us, who passes laws not to protect and maintain property … but to deny and overthrow it.

Quaife went on to found the country’s first truly independent newspaper, the Bay of Islands Observer, which became a clarion of settler grievances, reports of protest meetings, and calls for a free press. But the difficulty that Quaife encountered, of negotiating the tension between the interests of disparate readerships and social and economic elites within small communities, is perhaps the central, if unresolved, theme of this book.

For outsiders, looking at the journalism scene in the new colony in the mid- and late-19th century, what stood out was its extraordinary plenitude and variety. New Zealand had more newspapers per head of population than any other country in the world at that time. Every town of more than a few hundred had at least one, usually two, and often three or four papers. Any new settlement would soon attract a journalist, and a local Argus, Tribune, Courier, or Star would soon follow. Wherever gold was found, and a settlement, however small, established, news would be discovered shortly after and with it an organ to serve the local appetite. There were a phenomenal number of goldfield rags – 87 in four decades, with 38 on the West Coast alone, and an incredible 28 of them dailies. Hokitika alone had 14 newspapers between 1860 and 1900.

One of Grant’s central themes is the commercial motive behind this fecundity. The emergence of the penny press in Britain in the mid-19th century had turned newspapers from artisan-led small holdings to highly profitable businesses. For many of the colony’s newspaper entrepreneurs, a title was a way of making a living, firstly, and only secondly a desire to meet a community need for information and discourse. This is of course at odds with Patrick Day’s argument, in his The Making of the New Zealand Press (1990) that most newspapers were founded and run as launching pads for the political aspirations of their owners. Grant argues convincingly that political aspirations tended to come later as a natural extension of the proprietor’s growing community influence.

With a small advertising base, no government support, and a readership hungry for news, but often reluctant to part with annual subscriptions, many papers were shortlived. Survivors required iron nerves, careful attention to the political winds of the towns they served, exemplary business skills, and a determination to bring their readers news that mattered, that they really needed. It was not only political opinion and policy discourse, but more often the gristle of local trade that mattered most – who was arriving, what businesses were being set up, and before the international telegraph arrived in the late 1870s, the latest news off the boats.

A good shipping reporter could make or break a newspaper, and Henry Brett of Auckland’s Southern Cross was one of the best. A serious newshound did not wait till the ship had docked; Brett would lurk in the Rangitoto Channel, often at night in bad weather, and was often capsized as he waited for a ship. On a typical day, 2 March 1868, he boarded 28 vessels, quickly “skinning” each of newspapers, reports, gossip, and, above all, the manifest, which gave vital intelligence about the latest arrivals in the colony. Often he would get back to the office at 4am and set up and print copies himself to catch the Cobb & Co coach to Waikato at 5.30am. Journalists who complain today about the demands of the 24-hour news cycle, take note!

Survival depended not just on being first with the shipping news, and avoiding too much propagandising, but also on avoiding, when they did dip a toe in the political water, aligning with the wrong side. Many newspapers failed due to misjudging their readers’ support for Māori land rights, or the colonial government, rather than the interests of the settlers. When better printers, the arrival of the telegraph and better distribution through railways arrived, bigger daily newspapers were possible, and began to take on a form recognisable today. Like any business, the best ones realised that it was more profitable to be attuned to readers’ opinions than to seek to lead them, and so The Evening Post in Wellington and the New Zealand Herald in Auckland became known for their judicious avoidance of overt political partisanship. Yet, as Lasting Impressions makes clear, some of the most commercially successful newspapers were also those which resisted the urge to conform. Truth would be the prime example – its defiantly pro-working class, eclectic, strident, often racist, sometimes anti-racist, but always forthright, passionate reportage, mixed with a canny business sense, made it the standout commercial success of the first half of the 20th century. 

As Grant points out, it is surprising that such a central part of this country’s development has never had a comprehensive history until now. The last serious attempt was Guy Scholefield’s Newspapers in New Zealand in 1958. Unlike Scholefield, Grant has had the benefit of the superb digital archive of journalism now available on Papers Past, thanks to the National Library. He has used this to enrich the accounts of the development and growth of papers with some wonderful portraits of the personalities behind them, as well as examples of the journalism. With excellent endnotes, index and reference list, it is lush with illustrations. Grant and his wife Diane have made a huge effort to read, absorb and replicate the extensive, but fractured, literature on newspapers, and integrate it with their own reading.

With an emphasis on breadth, and a largely organisational approach centred on naming the titles and the names and dates behind them, there are inevitably going to be gaps, or at least areas that one wished had been further explored. One area would be investigative journalism – the only mention is an account of Silas Spragg’s investigation of the cruel “sweated” labour practices of the Dunedin clothing industry in 1889 (see illustration). 

Another fascinating, but under-explored, theme is the role and nature of the Māori press. The first Māori -language newspaper appeared in 1842; many others followed. Most were government-sponsored, and missionary-led, aiming to “watch over the interests of Māori, and … by timely and plain-spoken advice to turn his feet into the right direction, and so to promote his moral well-being as well as his social advancement.” Mostly, this was well-intentioned, and often timelessly apt. As Te Karere, or the Māori Recorder, wrote in 1861:

The natives complain, and justly too, of the abusive character of the press. They assert that the Maori is represented, and many words used not always very euphonious, in condemnation of some trifling error, on their part, while the glaring delinquencies of the Europeans are altogether shrouded, or but partially laid bare.

But not all were government lackeys. The King movement had its own paper, Te Hokioi, the first Māori-owned, edited and distributed organ. It deserves more attention than the four paragraphs it receives here. As Grant points out, there was nothing like the vigour of the Māori press in Canada’s or America’s indigenous communities. One suspects that Grant has swayed towards papers available in English. These quibbles aside, the sheer weight of detail, and the strong emphasis on the personalities that plied the newspapering trade, make this a compelling, often delightful read, and a truly magnificent addition to the scholarship of journalism here.

So, what lessons can we draw for today’s journalism? Firstly, this subject’s neglect by historians says something in itself. Journalism, despite its central and accepted constitutional role in the United States and Britain as a fundamental prerequisite of a healthy democracy, has never quite been accepted in the same way here. There has always been a lingering instinct to manage, co-opt, or, where necessary, suppress uncomfortable or inconvenient views, an instinct against which journalism here has struggled, and often failed to resist. Too often it has been co-opted by the establishment in the cause of some national interest, whether it be colonisation, land-grabbing, suppression of Māori, radicals or trade unions, capitalism, socialism, conscription, public health or simply political interests.

Secondly, too often newspapers have bought into the idea that we are “one nation”, instead of many nations, and have thus not only failed to inform their readerships of important social issues, but alienated many potential readers, not only to their own commercial cost, but to the cost of free discourse in general. Truth, for example, was virtually the only paper to oppose conscription in WWI or to support the labour movement during the bitter waterside strikes of 1913 and 1951. Newspapers in general made a lot of money supporting the government line, and the community was the poorer for the suppression of non-conformist voices in the mainstream press.

But, above all, the great lesson is that news, journalism and a free press are basic human needs. No matter how small, how new, how far away, even the tiniest village, farmer, or miner in their tent wants a sense of connection with the world. The public appetite for news is timeless; no matter how small the community, it wants and needs local intelligence, business and otherwise. Now, more than ever, when newsroom reporting pools are shrinking, and the heat of public disquiet over inequality, immigration, the climate and other issues is growing, we need spaces for free, informed public discourse. There is money to be made in local news, if the right business model is found. Until it is, governments have a duty to lend their support.

Dr James Hollings is the programme leader, journalism, at Massey University and the editor of A Moral Truth: 150 Years of Investigative Journalism in New Zealand (2017).

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