The local rag
Our printing press, telegraph and steam
Proclaim our town’s advance no idle dream1
When William Hogg wrote this verse to celebrate the growth of Nelson in 1875, he listed the equipment that printed his town’s newspapers as one of his signs of progress. Almost every town and local community in New Zealand once had its own newspaper, and many had more than one. They were a vital indicator of social and economic progress in a rapidly changing colonial society. A local paper fulfilled several valuable functions. It provided a community noticeboard, was the main source of news from elsewhere and, in the days before other media, gave local politicians a platform for their views.
Walter Brodie, an early resident of Auckland, described Māori reading the first Māori-language newspaper, Te Karere o Niu Tireni, produced from 1842 to 1846. ‘One native of a party is generally selected to read the news aloud. When he takes his seat on the ground, a circle is then formed, and after the reader has promulgated the contents, the different natives, according to their rank, stand up and argue the different points contained, which being done, they retire home, and answer the different letters by writing to the editor.’2
New Zealand’s first newspaper, the New Zealand Gazette, was printed in London in 1839 by Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s New Zealand Company. Two issues were distributed to colonists migrating to form the company settlement at Wellington. As soon as the settlers arrived in January 1840, printer Samuel Revans unloaded his press and began to print further issues of the Gazette. Later arrivals to Wellington were startled by the paper’s ‘virulent abuse of Auckland and the Governor, combined with slavish reverence of the New Zealand Company’.3
First government paper
The colonial government was first based at Okiato (then called Russell) in the Bay of Islands, where a government newspaper, the New Zealand Advertiser and Bay of Islands Gazette, was published from June 1840. It was edited by a Congregational minister, Barzillai Quaife, and printed government notices and news of relevance to local settlers. Quaife was soon in trouble with Governor William Hobson for criticising government policies on buying Māori land, and was forced to stop publishing. The government then produced its own New Zealand Government Gazette.
Arthur Thomson, a Scottish military surgeon, arrived in New Zealand with his regiment in 1847. He left 10 years later and wrote the first major history of New Zealand, including this observation on its early newspapers. ‘All the papers were in the habit of using strong language; indeed, savage scurrility supplied the place of wit, and harshness of expression the want of keenness. Many articles were actuated by personal feelings, but as some excuse for this state of things, it is to be remembered that the press was the only check the people had on their rulers.’4
Nelson’s first newspaper, the Examiner, began appearing weekly in 1842. Like the Wellington paper, it served as the voice of the New Zealand Company, which established the settlement of Nelson. As other European settlements appeared, they each formed their own local papers, such as Auckland’s Chronicle and New Zealand Colonist in 1841, Dunedin’s Otago News in 1848 and Christchurch’s Guardian and Canterbury Advertiser in 1852.
New Plymouth was the only early European settlement that did not immediately start a newspaper. In 1842 one indignant resident wrote, ‘It is high time we should have a newspaper. Nothing would benefit us more, and it should be strongly represented to the directors [of the New Zealand Company]. We are still compelled to write out our advertisements.’5 These handwritten notices, for items lost and found, goods for sale, announcements of meetings and personal or political messages, were pasted up on the Devon Street bridge until the Taranaki Herald finally appeared in 1852.
Hand-printing and typesetting
Early papers were laboriously hand-printed, and usually appeared only once or twice a week. Stories were not grouped into sections such as ‘sport’, ‘commercial’ and ‘news’, but simply placed in the order they were received. Every word was made up of individual lead letters set into columns that were then locked in a metal frame. The frame was placed in a simple iron press and the type was inked with a roller. A sheet of paper was then pressed down on it to transfer the imprint. When even this basic equipment was unavailable, it could be improvised. Henry Falwasser used a mangle to print the Auckland Times in 1842.
Line drawings appeared in newspapers from the early 1840s, especially to illustrate battles in the first New Zealand wars.
In 2021 the Wanganui Chronicle was New Zealand's oldest surviving newspaper. The first issue was printed in 1856 on a press made of maire wood and iron by staff and pupils at Wanganui Collegiate school. The Wanganui Chronicle and Rangitikei Messenger was published fortnightly, for sixpence a copy. From 1866 it appeared three times a week, and since 1871 the Wanganui Chronicle has been a daily paper.
As local populations increased, more newspapers set up in competition with each other. In 1857 Nelson’s Examiner was joined by the Colonist, which aimed to represent working people rather than large landowners.
First with the news
Transport between the first European settlements was slow and unreliable, so each paper served only its local community. For news from elsewhere, editors relied on correspondents in other provinces, or exchanges with other papers. Foreign news was reprinted from three-month-old newspapers arriving on ships from overseas, and there was fierce competition to be the first to provide it to readers.