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The birth of the newspaper in Australia

The Sydney Gazette

The Sydney Gazette, first published by ex-convict George Howe in 1803. Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia: A1200/19, L16090.

Early Australian newspapers are an important record of local, state and national events and their pages are a rich source of information about a community's history. Many major newspapers in circulation today can trace their origins to publications from the colonial period. However, the appearance, content and control of newspapers in the late 19th century reflected the distinct and often turbulent environment of the first Australian colonies.

Publishing in the NSW colony

Most material published in the first twenty years of the New South Wales colony notified soldiers, convicts and private settlers of the many rules set by the Governor. These 'government orders' were printed on a portable wooden and iron printing press that had been carried to the colony on the First Fleet. The orders were then displayed or announced aloud in public places and in churches at the compulsory Sunday services as more than half of the early colonists could not read.

George Howe and Australia's first newspaper

In November 1800, The Royal Admiral docked in the colony carrying a transported convict, George Howe, who arrived with printing experience from the West Indies and London. These valuable skills were quickly put to work at the government press, and the colony's first locally published book, a compilation of government orders, was produced in 1802.

George Howe was also permitted to print Australia's first newspaper from a humble shed located at the rear of Government House. From 5 March 1803, the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser was on sale as a weekly edition with four portfolio pages of official material and a limited number of private notices. In early editions of the paper, a colonist could find shipping news, auction results, crime reports and agricultural notices as well as poems, literature and religious advice. To collect local news, the editor hung a 'slip box' in front of the store where the paper was issued

News from abroad arrived on the clipper ships and was usually ten to fourteen weeks out-of-date by the time it was published.

Beyond government censorship

The Sydney Gazette was the only newspaper circulated in the colony until the appearance of William Charles Wentworth's paper, The Australian, in 1824. The tone of the early issues of the Sydney Gazette has been described as 'moral to the point of priggishness, patriotic to the point of servility, pompous in a stiff, eighteenth century fashion'. (Source: Ferguson, J A, Foster, A G and Green, H M 1936, The Howes and their press, The Sunnybrook Press, Sydney, p. 98).

However, government censorship was lifted in 1824 and within two years, two competing papers had emerged.

By the mid-thirties, New South Wales had seven papers, South Australia had five weekly papers by 1841 and Tasmania had eleven papers by 1854. By 1886, records show there were at least 48 daily papers circulating in Australian states, however many of these papers only appeared for a short period.

The emergence of an industry

Growth in the circulation and size of newspapers continued through global conflict and urban development at the end of the 19th century. Australians began to read newspapers regularly and consulted more than one source to satisfy their increasing desire for news. Significantly, the telegraph connected Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane in 1861, and Britain was linked to Australia in 1872. Alongside the telephone's emergence in the 1880s, telegraphic transfer helped journalists rapidly receive and send news across greater distances.

Cheaper wood pulp, improvements in printing technology, railways and streamlined news services all enabled a more efficient and influential newspaper industry. The passing of legislation making education compulsory for children over the age of six years, such as the Education Act 1872 (Vic) and the Public Instruction Act of 1880 (NSW), led to increases in literacy as more of the population learnt to read and write.

Changing formats

Variety was introduced within the text of newspapers through a more artistic use of white space and sub-headings, cartoons, and later photographs. Reports were shortened and the front page was increasingly given over to a topical 'leading article'. The Sydney Sun was the first daily paper to carry a news story on its front page in 1910 and Melbourne's Sun News-Pictorial was the first daily pictorial tabloid (newspaper with pictures) in 1922.

Rivalry and dissent

William Kerr

William Kerr, Town clerk of Melbourne 1851-56 and founder of the 'Argus' newspaper. Image courtesy of Image courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

Four prominent dailies emerged during this period: The Age , the Argus, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Daily Telegraph . Competition was keen, and the reporters at the Argus once handed telegraph operators a copy of the Bible in an attempt to take over the wires and prevent other newspapers from sending their stories.

Clashes with government were not unusual, and newspapers increasingly expressed anti-authoritarian opinions. The Age was launched in 1854, during the turmoil of Victoria's gold rush era and prided itself on voicing a radical viewpoint, including support for the miners at Ballarat, the eight-hour working day and reform of land laws.

Newspapers frequently published fierce attacks on their rivals, for example The South Australian Register launched the following assault on The Southern Australian in 1838:

Though we think it scarcely necessary to pollute our columns with examples of the trash doled out by the persons who club their wits to rake together a weekly sixpence worth of scum, still, as a friend, blessed with a stomach not easily turned, has ventured to gather a few specimens out of the nauseous and disgusting puddle, we print these lies with a running commentary.
Pitt, George H 1946, The press in South Australia, 1836-1850, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, p. 31.

The era of modern journalism

A crowd outside the Argus newspaper building waiting for news from Gallipoli

Melbourne, Victoria, 1915. A crowd outside the Argus newspaper building on a Sunday late in the year waiting for news from Gallipoli. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: H11613.

Historians of newspapers have pointed out that from their birth, newspapers have shown 'cannibalistic' tendencies: they are constantly swallowing rivals through processes of take-overs, mergers and commercial failure.

Australian historian Clive Turnbull proposed that the era of modern journalism began in the 1920s as companies took over control of newspapers and the popularity of a news story became increasingly important. (Source: Turnbull, Clive, 'Journalism' in C H Grattan (ed.) 1947, Australia, University of California Press, Berkeley.)

Useful links


References used in the preparation of this story

  • Holden, W Sprague 1961, Australia goes to press, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.
  • Isaacs, Victor and Kirkpatrick, Rod 2003, Two hundred years of Sydney newspapers: a short history, Rural Press, North Richmond, NSW
  • Mayer, Henry 1964, The press in Australia, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne.
  • Souter, Gavin 1981, Company of heralds: a century and a half of Australian publishing by John Fairfax Limited and its predecessors 1831-1981, Melbourne University Press, Carlton.
  • Walker, R B 1976, The newspaper press in New South Wales 1803-1920, Sydney University Press, Sydney.

Last updated: 18th July 2007