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
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.
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.
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.
From the 1860s New Zealand’s rapidly increasing population and growing literacy, as well as wealth from gold and other resources, made newspaper publishing more financially viable. Several papers founded in this period survived in some form into the 21st century. They include Auckland’s New Zealand Herald (set up in 1863) and Wellington’s Evening Post (1865), which merged with its morning rival the Dominion to become the Dominion Post in 2002.
By 1875 the Nelson Examiner had disappeared, so Nelson was served by a morning and an evening daily paper, the Colonist and the Evening Mail. In 1920 the Colonist was bought by the Evening Mail. This became a morning paper, the Nelson Mail, in 1995.
When war broke out at Waitara, Taranaki, in 1860, the Taranaki Herald’s compositors (who set up the type) had to stop work to carry out militia duty. One issue of the paper failed to appear when the military authorities accused it of supplying information to the enemy by describing the town’s defences as inadequate. Soon afterwards the editor was shot by Māori. However, the paper itself survived and became a daily in 1875. It amalgamated with the rival Taranaki News in 1962. The paper was still published in 2013 as the Daily News.
New Zealand’s first daily newspaper, the Otago Daily Times, appeared in 1861. It was founded by Julius Vogel, who had begun working as a journalist on Australian goldfields. Arriving in Dunedin, he bought a share in a weekly paper, the Otago Witness. Vogel became its editor, then launched the Otago Daily Times, which he edited until 1868. Two years later he entered Parliament, becoming premier in 1876.
Another newspaper proprietor and editor who used his publication to advance his political ambitions was Whanganui businessman John Ballance. In 1867 he started the Evening Herald (later renamed the Wanganui Herald) in opposition to the more conservative Wanganui Chronicle. Ballance entered Parliament in 1875, and in 1891 became the first Liberal premier. In the 1970s both the Herald and Chronicle were acquired by the same owner. In 1986 the Wanganui Herald became a community newspaper called Wanganui Midweek. The Wanganui Chronicle continued to appear as a morning daily.
The standard technique of the ‘rag-planter’ Joseph Ivess was to find up-and-coming towns, bring in a printing plant and editor, publish several issues of a paper and then advertise it for sale or lease. Often several of Ivess’s newspapers contained identical pages, because the typesetting was shipped from town to town for reprinting. His tiny local newspapers were economically marginal, and disgruntled former employees referred to Ivess as ‘Joey Low-Wages’.
As European settlement expanded from the 1870s, local press entrepreneurs known as ‘rag-planters’ established chains of papers in rural areas such as Taranaki and Southland. The tiny West Coast town of Reefton had three daily papers at one time. Joseph Ivess is said to have started up 29 New Zealand papers such as the Akaroa Mail and Greymouth Evening Star, all in small, recently formed settlements, and most very short-lived.
Advances in printing technology during the late 19th century enabled papers to appear more rapidly and with improved content. Printing presses were powered first by steam, then gas and eventually by electricity. Hand-setting of type was replaced by machines such as the Linotype, which mechanically set entire lines as a single piece of lead.
Many more articles were now accompanied by illustrations, ranging from basic drawings to sophisticated engravings and, especially in weekly papers, incisive topical cartoons.
The New Zealand Celt newspaper was founded in 1867, to represent the large numbers of Irish Catholic miners arriving on the West Coast during the gold rush. The paper vigorously advocated the cause of Irish nationalism. In 1868 its editor, John Manning, erected a cross at Hokitika in memory of three Fenian martyrs hanged in Manchester. This outraged the town’s mayor, who owned a rival newspaper. Manning was convicted of seditious libel and sentenced to prison. He later left for the US, where he continued working as a journalist.
The arrival of the telegraph in the 1860s transformed the emphasis of news-gathering, from local opinion to reports of national and international events. An underwater telegraph cable between New Zealand and Australia operated from 1876, supplying international news that was still known, a century later, as the newspapers’ ‘cable page’.
In this period newspapers developed regular sections for each kind of story – local and international news, sports, business, the ‘women’s page’ and others.
In 1879 the United Press Association was formed, enabling the main daily papers to share and exchange national and foreign news. In 1892 three large dailies, the New Zealand Herald, Otago Daily Times and Press, agreed to share the costs of a London-based correspondent and advertising salesman.
Even by the end of the 19th century, many isolated rural settlements could not receive an urban daily paper on the day it was printed. The main dailies therefore supplied a weekly version of their content to outlying districts. The first of these rural weeklies, the Otago Witness, appeared in 1851. ‘In the “Back Blocks”,’ wrote its editor in 1899, ‘the visit to the neighbouring township is performed but weekly … and in the big weekly [newspaper] the back-blocker finds his supply of current news and also his sole supply of food for thought.’1 By 1900 there were 22 rural weeklies, although only the Auckland Weekly News survived beyond the Second World War.
Through the early 20th century New Zealand’s newspapers multiplied and expanded. As readership and advertising revenue increased, their profitability became more significant to their owners than political ambitions. By 1911 New Zealand had 64 daily papers for a population of just over a million. There were two main types – a large urban daily owned by a company or family, or a small or medium-sized country paper, sometimes appearing daily but more likely two or three times a week.
Arthur Field began his journalism career in 1901 with the Wellington daily, the Evening Post. His right-wing views led him to switch to its more conservative rival, the Dominion, when it began publication in 1907. He wrote a widely read column called ‘Without prejudice’, although he was an active anti-Semite and extreme conservative. During the great strike of 1913, Field was responsible for editorial attacks on the strikers. These were so provocative that strikers were rumoured to be about to storm the newspaper offices. Field’s later writings influenced far-right movements in Britain, the US and elsewhere.
There was little effort to lay out stories in a reader-friendly manner. A story might run right down the page and across to the next column until it finished. A forest of tiny advertisements covered the front page. It took sensational events such as the surrender of Germany in the First World War for a news story to make the front page.
However, photographs (black and white only) illustrated many articles, and the daily editorial cartoon was a central feature of most papers. Several New Zealand newspaper cartoonists went on to successful careers in Europe, the US and elsewhere. One of them, David Low, produced outstanding work in British daily papers for several decades from the 1930s. Low claimed that New Zealand’s two most important exports were mutton and cartoonists.
Despite the growing influence of radio, newspapers remained the dominant mass medium and were carefully read and vigorously discussed by the entire adult population. Their international sections were greatly enlarged and improved by contributions from press agencies which supplied news from around the world.
Competition between papers contributed to the rise of the professional New Zealand journalist, and often resulted in excellent news-gathering. Some journalists earned national and even international reputations. Malcolm Ross’s career began on the Otago Daily Times, and in 1897 he became the Wellington-based parliamentary correspondent for that paper and the Christchurch Press. Ross also reported on New Zealand for major overseas papers. In 1915 he was sent to Gallipoli as a war correspondent (although his dispatches were heavily censored).
Typically, New Zealand reporters ‘had to turn their hands to anything and everything … It was expected of the reporter that he should with equal readiness describe a cattle show and discuss a theatrical first night, that he should attend a meeting of the Presbytery in the morning, express a learned judgment about a football match in the afternoon and report a meeting of the city council in the evening.’1
Pioneering woman journalist Robin Hyde joined the staff of Wellington’s Dominion in 1922, aged 17. She later worked for various other papers, inserting controversial and subversive views into otherwise innocuous columns. In 1936 she wrote that ‘there are only two things wrong with the women journalists in this country ... One is that in nine cases out of ten, they are underpaid … and the other is that they aren’t given enough scope. There is still the horrid delusion that the social column is the only department women like to read, or are competent to write.’2
A steadily increasing number of New Zealand journalists were women, but until the First World War they were mostly confined to covering ‘women’s issues’ such as fashion, food and social gossip. Jessie Mackay began writing a fortnightly column for the Otago Witness in 1898 and in 1906 was appointed ‘lady editor’ of the Canterbury Times. By the 1920s she was permitted to write on issues such as women’s suffrage and Irish nationalism, but faced persistent prejudice against serious journalism by women. ‘I had to take on a double sort of life,’ she wrote, ‘half woman’s, half man’s work. It is hard for even the most sympathetic man to understand how hard it is for a woman to obtain the conditions a man writer commands as a matter of course.’3
By publishing poems, stories and essays, and providing steady employment to literary figures, the New Zealand press made important services to literature. Thomas Bracken, author of the lyrics for the national anthem ‘God defend New Zealand’, founded a weekly in 1875 and published the leading writers of his day, aiming ‘to foster a national spirit in New Zealand and to encourage colonial literature’.4 The British novelist Samuel Butler supplied freelance contributions to the Christchurch Press. Historians such as William Pember Reeves and Thomas Lindsay Buick developed their writing skills as newspapermen. Later, the poet Allen Curnow worked as a night subeditor on the Christchurch Press, and for 50 years contributed satirical poems under the name ‘Whim Wham’.
English-born journalist William Lane edited labour-movement papers in Queensland and advocated anarchist ideals. In 1893 he led a group of supporters to Paraguay to form a utopian colony, which failed to survive. Lane then migrated to New Zealand and became a leader-writer for Auckland’s New Zealand Herald in 1900, and its editor in 1913. His political views, by then extremely conservative, ultrapatriotic and racist, were expressed in an influential column under the pen-name ‘Tohunga’.
Many newspapers were started to advance the political views of their owners and editors. Papers representing conservative and business interests usually attracted the most financial backing and outlasted their competitors. A rare exception among long-lived New Zealand newspapers was the Grey River Argus, published in Greymouth from 1866 to 1966. From 1918 it openly supported the labour movement and carried the phrase ‘New Zealand’s labor daily’ on the front page. In 1919 some West Coast trade unions bought a share in the paper. From 1911 to 1924 the labour movement also had a weekly paper, the Maoriland Worker, whose editors included Harry Holland, later the leader of the Labour Party. Another lively weekly, the New Zealand Truth, supported radical politics when it was launched in 1905 but grew much more conservative from the 1920s. Truth ceased publication in 2013.
In the 20th century New Zealanders were also able to read some well-produced religious newspapers, such as the Catholic weeklies Tablet (1873–1996) and Zealandia (1934–89).
Increasing competition from radio as a medium for news, entertainment and advertising reduced the number of New Zealand newspapers in the mid-20th century. By 1940 each of the four main centres had just one morning and one evening daily paper. The Second World War caused most papers to lose skilled staff, and made newsprint (which was then imported) much harder to obtain. Newspaper ownership was steadily consolidated in the hands of a small number of companies. New Zealand began producing its own newsprint from wood pulp in 1955.
In the post-war years the daily paper remained a vital feature of everyday life. Morning papers were distributed by adults, often from delivery vehicles along with the morning milk and bread, but metropolitan evening papers were hawked to homeward-bound commuters by schoolboys. In Wellington the shrill cry of ‘Eee-vening Po-ost!’ formed a distinctive note in the city’s street sounds.
The co-operatively owned United Press Association, formed in 1879 to share news content between the major papers, became the New Zealand Press Association in 1942. Reporters now used the telephone, radio and airmail to gather and file their stories. Formal journalism training began in the 1960s and some New Zealand journalists acquired international reputations. Invercargill-born Peter Arnett made his name as a war correspondent in Vietnam in the 1960s, and reported the 1990s Gulf War for the world’s major news organisations.
Printing presses that used giant rolls, rather than sheets, of newsprint enabled newspapers to be produced far more quickly. In place of lead type, text and photos were transferred to the paper using a photographic process called offset printing. Colour photos appeared in newspapers from about 1990. Typesetting was computerised from the 1970s, and journalists began to type their stories directly onto computers, and to supply them electronically to their editors and layout staff.
Newsprint, the paper used for newspaper printing, was imported to New Zealand until 1955. In that year the Tasman mill in Kawerau began production, using wood pulp from state pine forests. It eventually exported to Australia, Asia and elsewhere, and in the mid-1970s was briefly the largest newsprint mill in the world. However, in 2012 the Tasman mill’s production was halved as a result of declining newspaper sales and income.
These advances vastly improved the appearance and content of New Zealand newspapers, but failed to resist the rise in competition from other mass media, especially television. Evening dailies disappeared as readers chose to listen to the radio and watch television in their homes instead. Changing demographics and economic circumstances contributed to the demise of long-running provincial papers such as the Manawatu Herald, which closed in 1997.
The weekly papers previously produced by the main dailies for their rural readers were replaced by bulky weekend editions of the daily paper. These editions eventually had magazine supplements inserted, mainly to provide better-quality paper for the colour advertising. Many readers, however, believed that the content of their local newspaper had declined in quality as a result of a loss in income and staff. Fewer journalists were employed to deliver more stories, and reporters were often required to take their own photos, as in-house photographers and other staff were laid off to reduce overheads. By 1999 the number of daily newspapers in New Zealand had declined to 29.
Advertising traditionally provided around 70% of a newspaper’s income. As reader numbers fell, free community papers appeared, with 100% of their income made up by advertising.
Overseas ownership of the New Zealand press has been a hotly debated issue, especially in the 1980s when it was relatively rare – and new – for a New Zealand paper to be foreign-owned. By 2007 almost all of the country’s daily papers were owned by two Australian-based media conglomerates – Fairfax and APN.
In August 2011, after almost 132 years in business, the New Zealand Press Agency (NZPA) closed, a victim of technology changes and the concentration of newspaper ownership in the hands of two Australian chains. Veteran journalist Max Lambert, who started with NZPA in 1958, and remembered when stories were delivered by telegraph and phones were rarely used, noted that the closure left New Zealand as one of the few western countries with no domestic news agency. 'We'll all be the poorer for the agency's passing.'1
The internet has had both positive and negative consequences for the newspaper industry. By 2013 many people preferred to access websites rather than to read a hard-copy newspaper. However, each of the daily papers also offered an online edition supplying news that could be updated within minutes, with moving pictures and interactive graphics alongside text and still photos. These websites helped the papers to compete directly with the immediacy of radio and TV news.
The forest of small classified ads traditionally provided the bulk of revenue for newspapers, and they were hard-hit by the boom in online shopping and other forms of trading. In an attempt to make up for this loss of income, the media conglomerate Fairfax bought the popular auction website TradeMe in 2006. Six years later it sold all its shares in TradeMe to fund its other operations.
The sharp decline in the overall number, total readership and economic importance of newspapers in the later 20th century has also been a subject for heated debate, and the virtual disappearance of newspapers has regularly been predicted. However, that decline has slowed significantly in the 21st century, and in 2013 newspapers continued to attract a substantial number of readers and substantial advertising revenue.
A 2009 survey found that 57% of Dunedin residents over 15 read the Otago Daily Times on an average day. The survey found that, nationwide, newspaper readership had declined by less than 5% in the previous decade.
A major reason for this tenacity was the survival of a localised pattern of newspaper distribution dating from the 19th century. Even in the 21st century the five main dailies remained confined to their own geographical areas, with little overlapping readership. This regional character has helped to sustain these newspapers in the face of competition from other media and from each other.
In the 21st century newspapers continued to bind New Zealand communities together. Readers relied on their local paper for death notices, local authority disputes, film reviews, shopping bargains and local sports results – the essential community communications that television, radio and the internet had not yet replaced.
100 years of news: as presented by the New Zealand Herald, 1863–1963. Auckland: Wilson and Horton, 1963.
Buchanan, Rachel. Stop press: the last days of newspapers. Melbourne: Scribe, 2013.
Curnow, Jenifer, Ngapare Hopa and Jane McRae, eds. Rere atu, taku manu! Discovering history, language and politics in the Māori-language newspapers. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2002.
Scholefield, Guy H. Newspapers in New Zealand. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1958.
Verry, Leslie. Seven days a week: the story of Independent Newspapers Limited. Wellington: INL Print, 1985.