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Pressing On - Papers Past And Future

Colin Peacock, Mediawatch Presenter | From Mediawatch on 23 June 2024

Pundits have predicted the death of old-fashioned newspapers for years - but they’re still here. This week Mediawatch looks at a new history of New Zealand newspapers from one hundred years ago up until the new millennium, when digital technology and devices turned the news business upside down.


"To say the last one will be delivered to a house on Dominion Road in 2024 is specious. That sort of prediction has been found out time and time again down the years," former New Zealand Herald editor Tim Murphy told Mediawatch back in 2016, when we asked if the writing was on the wall for newspapers.  

The Independent had just become the first of the UK's national dailies to go online-only. Murphy had set up his own online - and completely paperless - news operation after leaving the Herald in 2015: Newsroom.co.nz 

So when did he think papers would expire here?

"2116," Murphy replied bullishly, but with tongue in cheek. 

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When pressed, Murphy told Mediawatch papers wouldn't last another 100 years, but at least another generation-and-a-half. 

“In just ten years from now they may not be much like the papers we have now.”

But our newspapers have been changing ever since the first ones rolled off the presses here - in size, shape, weight and colour as well as in their scope, tone and purpose. 

Hear Ian F Grant and others in this week's Mediawatch

From the beginning 

 Ian F Grant with his first New Zealand newspaper history. Photo: PHOTO / RNZ Colin Peacock

Back in 2018 a detailed account of the early days appeared: Lasting Impressions: The Story of New Zealand's newspapers 1840-1920 by Ian F Grant.  

Grant's newly-published follow-up takes on the next eighty years: Pressing On: The Story of New Zealand newspapers from 1921 to 2000

Grant played a part in this era himself, as a journalist and co-founder of Fourth Estate Publishing which ran the fledgling National Business Review 50 years ago, along with Hugh Rennie, a longtime collaborator who became a leading media lawyer. (The NBR today is - coincidentally - no longer a newspaper. It was one of the first significant local publications to go online-only in 2021).  

Pressing On takes newspaper history up to the new millennium, when digital technology was just starting to turn the newspaper business inside out. But it begins a century ago, when newspapers here were profitable, plentiful and - in many places - the only way to get the news of the world. Broadcasting had yet to kick off, though radio wasn't far away. 

“The 1920s was the beginning of a period of considerable prosperity. Advertising revenue was good. Most papers were still owned by families. The whole corporate thing hadn't really started. It was certainly a period where there was a lot of optimism in the newspapers, and increasingly in the country generally.” 

In the book's foreword, Rennie noted the government back then helped with discounted telegraph rates, low postage and a lucrative supply of public notices. Ironically, 100 years on, the government is again pondering how to help a struggling media industry. 

 “There was an understanding by the government, which is not always so today, of the importance of news and being able to communicate with the public, often in quite isolated communities,” Grant told Mediawatch

Turbulent times: 1921-1945 

In 1925 the editor of Wellington’s Evening Post earnestly reassured readers that the paper would keep “colour” out of the news, and distinguish facts from opinions. 

“That's what most papers tended to do. There was very little sensationalism and that continued for a very long time. The papers here were more subdued than those in the UK, and perhaps more responsible.” 

“Photography was viewed as a very strange thing that was not necessary. This was long before the 'me generation' and personality politics. Journalists accepted that their names are not going to be on their stories . . . which the newspaper proprietors were always very happy to do, because once people's names appeared they thought they could perhaps demand more pay,” he said. 

“It was certainly accepted that opinions had to be kept very separate. You have the feeling now sometimes journalists have not been taught . . . the two things can be in the same newspaper, but they shouldn't be in the same article,” he said. 

Grant describes this as a messy political period in which some of our enduring political parties and movements were formed.  

“Papers were, generally speaking, politically neutral  - but in the sense that they tended to support conservative governments.”

The Evening Post claimed to be politically independent, he said, but “those claims were not entirely convincing.” 

In 1935 the New Zealand Herald warned against electing a Labour Government. A Dominion editorial meeting discussed the need to “combat socialist tendencies” 

“When Labour had a very convincing win . . . newspapers did a complete change around, welcoming the new government. I suppose that was because the leader was not the kind of wild revolutionary that the papers and cartoons had previously been showing.” 

Would New Zealand newspaper readers have known about the rise of fascism from what was published here in the run up to war in 1939?

 “Hitler was actually first mentioned in the Herald in 1923  - and through the 1920s, and 1930s. International coverage was surprisingly good. There was very little international news at all in many American papers for a long, long time.” 

“One editor here went on a scholarship overseas and wrote considerable praise about Mussolini. The concern was much more about communism. We were very much tied into the English press - and Lord Rothermere of The Daily Mail was very influential.”   

In the Second World War, the demand for news here was high - but the paper supply from overseas was restricted and newspapers slimmed down. Truth was also restricted by censorship and propaganda. 

Golden years: 1946 to 1965

Pressing On quotes broadcaster and editor Alan Mulgan as saying the New Zealand press had the virtues of decency and responsibility - and they were not politically partisan. 

“Families had had a long tradition in newspapers, and they felt a responsibility. They also were by nature conservative, and thought it was important to be responsible,” says Grant. 

While Māori moved to towns and cities in unprecedented numbers, Grant says this was not reflected in our newspapers or newsrooms. 

That was still true decades later. 

But there were exceptions. Harry Dansey - who later became a race relations conciliator - was a journalist and a cartoonist from the 1950s onwards. He was editor and part-owner of the Rangitikei News before moving to the Taranaki Daily News in New Plymouth. George Koea was the editor of the Daily News and the now-defunct Taranaki Herald before he died in 1987. 

“They were really pioneers. In terms of racial discrimination our newspapers don't have an impressive record.” 

He cites The Franklin Times in Pukekohe. 

“Between 1946 and 1965 it was a very racially-divided town. People today are justifiably horrified at what happened. There was real segregation.” 

“There were terrible health problems within the Māori  population who lived in substandard conditions. The Franklin Times would report on the fact that Māori got into trouble - and perhaps a little bit about the health problems. But very little about why they had those health problems. That was something that was kept very quiet. 

The words ‘racial segregation’ simply did not appear on the pages of that paper over over a couple of decades.” 

Pressing On records how Auckland Star journalist Gary Wilson helped established cadetships and training courses after he realised there was almost no diversity at all around him in the 1980s. Less than two percent of New Zealand’s journalists had Māori or Pasifika heritage at the time. 

More recently, equal employment opportunities commissioner Judy McGregor - who broke ground herself as editor of the Sunday News and the Auckland Star in the 1980s - condemned the situation as “embarrassing” in 2007. 

A man’s game?

Newspaper staff were overwhelmingly male for most of the ‘golden years.’ 

Pressing On tells the tale of how the Court denied a 14 year-old Waiuku girl the opportunity to be an apprentice at the local paper in 1930. 

“It will be unwise in the interest of the girl herself so the applicant has refused,” the Court ruled.

But some women were proprietors, like Mabel Allen at the Woodville Examiner

“The main reason women ended up running newspapers was that they were in newspapering families and got to know about the business. Ethel Jacobs was editor of the Akaroa Mail for nearly 50 years. It was considered that her father and then her brother ran it but (they) had nothing like the same ability.” 

“She received praise for editorials (supposedly) written by her father or her brother, when neither had had anything to do with it.” 

“Robin Hyde . . . ended up at the Dominion and wrote amazing and marvelous columns. 

“She wrote a column (called Peeps at Parliament) for a long time that was really ironic and even extremely rude about the people in Parliament, who were uniformly male. She wrote very powerfully in her column about the male world and some of the problems that stem from it. The Dominion was certainly not a liberal newspaper, I assume that because she wrote so well, they accepted it.” 

Hyde also wrote under a pseudonym in the Wanganui Chronicle. Pressing On notes that when the column wasn't published because she was absent due to a pregnancy (the result of a relationship with another staffer at the paper) The Chronicle invented a story about a heart condition to keep it quiet. 

Gathering clouds: 1966-2000  

The third part of Grant’s history begins with a survey by Consumer in 1966 which said people found the papers responsible back then, but ‘samey’ and even timid. People also noted a lack of writers with personality. 

Harsh. But fair? 

“I think it probably was then, but that changed very considerably. This is where bylines started to come in - and more ‘personality journalism’. While it made our newspapers a great deal brighter later on, it also blurred the difference between facts and comment."

There were huge debates and protests going on through the late 1960s and 1970s over social issues - and conflicts which would have required media analysis and commentary. Surely newspaper writers and editors leaned into that?

“Not greatly. The kind of reporting that looked into those kinds of issues was late coming,” says Grant. 

Big newspaper chains picked up most of the country’s papers, especially in the cities, in the 1980s and 1990s. Long before the internet undercut the market, important papers were closing down and 'consolidation' was the name of the game. 

All metropolitan centres were one-newspaper places by the mid 1990s, except for Wellington. 

“The crucial element in successful metropolitan newspapers is advertising. By this time the effects from radio and television were felt. Also, newspapers that had been family-owned were increasingly owned by companies that had different criteria for success.” 

Pressing On says The Press set up the first local newspaper website in 1995. 

“That was a bit of a landmark but back then people wouldn't have realised perhaps what a moment that must have been. Newspapers had not really begun to understand things like paywalls were going to be necessary to protect their material.”

How that plays out is the next story. 

Post-2000: the digital age 

“What's happened after 2000 is still undecided. There are very clear indications of what is happening but it's by no means certain  . . . so you couldn't write it all definitively yet.” 

“I've collected a lot of material but volume three  - if there is one - will not be written by me.” 

“I will present to Turnbull Library all the material I have from the year 2000 up to 2020. I hope in a decade or so somebody else will come across all this . . . and that's going to be a good start. And I hope I'm around to support and encourage that work.” 

Veteran journalist Colin James described Pressing On as “monumental  . . . in both senses.”

His longtime collaborator Hugh Rennie KC called it “a requiem” for local papers.

Does Grant think it serves a monument to a dying form? 

“I certainly hope not. They are still important in a world which is completely - which is increasingly clouded by a whole range of views about just about everything, which often has very little to do with any facts.” 

“I think they're more likely to succeed as they did in the past when they are locally owned with a commitment to the local community and the people in it.” 

Pressing On and Lasting Impressions are published by Fraser Books. Email degrant@xtra.co.nz for details. 

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