This past week the news has been full of talk about the fate of our city’s newspapers, in particular the Sydney Morning Herald.  Powerful forces appear to be gathering to gain control, while economic pressures threaten the staff and maybe even the existence of the printed newspaper itself.  The Herald has been around longer than any other Australian paper and seen many changes and challenges, but is this one too many?

The SMH is Australia’s longest, continually published newspaper.  Beginning in 1831 as the Sydney Herald (it became the Sydney Morning Herald in 1842), the paper has chronicled much of Sydney’s development and history, providing historians with a continual record of the views and opinions of Sydney.

But it wasn’t the first newspaper; that was The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, started in 1803 and published until 1842.  The Gazette began as an official newspaper, detailing government orders, shipping movements and official notices.  Some general news and advertisements soon began appearing, with overseas news being included whenever a new ship came into port with updates.

Now online, the Gazette remains an invaluable resource for anyone studying the colonial goings on of early Sydney.  The paper existed as the only newspaper in Sydney until joined by the radical and anti-government Australian in 1824.  This is not the same Australian we have now and it only lasted until 1848.

The arrival of the Herald in 1831 signalled a quickening in the news media in Sydney.  The growing city was moving away from its convict origins, and the increasing population were keen on the news.  Although much of the population was effectively illiterate, a growing immigrant group were driving newspapers forward.  Between 1831 and 1850 four new newspapers started.

The Herald started as a weekly paper with a circulation of just 750 copies.  This grew to 1600 by 1836 and it went daily in 1840.  In 1841, the paper changed hands with a newly arrived English printer by the name of John Fairfax buying it with his partner Charles Kemp.

John Fairfax, c1861

Kemp sold out in 1853 and John Fairfax bought his two sons into the business in 1857, changing the company name to John Fairfax & Sons.  The Fairfax family owned the Herald for the next 137 years, making it one of the nation’s longest and most influential media empires.  In the early years, the Herald ran a strongly conservative line, often representing the Fairfax family viewpoint.  The sole ownership threw up many of the concerns that are currently being raised about undue influence and political bias.

The newspapers in the nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth were very different to today’s papers.  Most were only 4-6 pages long, the front and back pages were reserved for advertising and classifieds, with the news sections being in the centre.  Often church sermons, political speeches or court cases were reported verbatim, right down to interjections, hear hears and applause.

There were no photographs or illustrations, with only a few line drawings included for major stories.  The exception was the Illustrated Sydney News which included lithographic illustrations from the 1870s.  Overseas news was often months old by the time it was reported, until 1872 when the connection of the electric telegraph between Europe and Australia meant overseas stories could now be printed in a matter of days after the event.

Other than the news, the technology of making the papers has contributed in a less obvious way.  Newspapers were originally compiled by hand setting individual letters into the presses for each page.  Small letters were kept in the lower draws or cases of the type setter’s desk and large letters in the upper cases.  Hence the terms lowercase and uppercase.

Maybe even more curious, it was Sydney’s newspapers that partly inspired the building of the southern railway from Sydney to Wagga Wagga.

Southern NSW was closer geographically to Melbourne, and Melbourne newspapers would arrive in Wagga Wagga a full day before Sydney’s.  The Sydney news was old news and few people bought the papers.  Fuelled by the Sydney Melbourne rivalry, and worried that southern NSW would gravitate economically, socially and politically towards Melbourne, the government built a new train network to run daily trains from Sydney to facilitate the earlier delivery of Sydney’s news.  In 1887 the first train bought the Sydney papers to areas north of Wagga Wagga before the Melbourne news could arrive and delivered them to Wagga Wagga at the same time.  The newspapers saved the region for NSW.

New technologies and fashions changed newspapers and the Herald throughout the twentieth century.  In 1908 the Herald published its first photograph, illustrating the arrival of the American fleet into the harbour.  In 1924, the rival Daily Telegraph broke with convention and replaced its front page ads with the news.  In 1942, as a result of wartime rationing of paper stocks, it reduced its size to a tabloid.

Herald photographs (in the middle) and others capture the dismissal of the Lang Government in 1932 from the tops of tables.

The Herald placed news on its front page from April 1944.  As obvious as it now seems, at the time it was a big deal, with lengthy debates about whether it would affect the quality of the news or if it would lose readership.  It didn’t on either count.

The Fairfax family finally lost control of the paper in 1987.

Today as Gina Rhinehart increases her stake in the company, some are worried the paper will come under undue influence of its major shareholder and report their views.  This wouldn’t be the first time in its history.  And unlike the rotation of owners and influence, the SMH has a knack for hanging around.

As a final point, since 1803, Sydney has had about 20 major newspapers not including the suburban papers.

As a city, we love a good read.

PS: If you missed this on Fbi radio, you can catch it all again on soundcloud.

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