Ink in their veins

A his­tory of New Zealand news­pa­pers de­liv­ers plenty of colour­ful de­tail from the gold-rush era.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS & CULTURE - By KARL DU FRESNE

It’s well known – in fact, a cel­e­brated part of West Coast mythol­ogy – that Hok­i­tika at the height of the 19th cen­tury gold rush had 72 pubs. What’s not so well known is that the ram­bunc­tious gold­fields town also had 14 news­pa­pers.

His­to­rian Ian F Grant’s new book, Last- ing Im­pres­sions: The story of New Zealand’s news­pa­pers, 1840-1920, re­veals that an ex­tra­or­di­nary 38 papers, many of them dailies, were launched on the West Coast be­tween 1864 and 1898 – an in­di­ca­tion of the min­ers’ in­ter­est in pub­lic af­fairs and hunger for in­for­ma­tion.

As gold­fields set­tle­ments mush­roomed and just as sud­denly died, presses would be dis­man­tled and moved to the scene of the next dis­cov­ery.

Pub­lish­ing ac­tiv­ity was only slightly less fre­netic else­where. “Dur­ing much of the 19th cen­tury,” Grant writes, “there were more news­pa­pers in New Zealand per head of pop­u­la­tion than any­where else in the world.” As early as 1860, more than 30 papers had been launched.

The au­thor, who has worked in ad­ver­tis­ing and news­pa­pers (he was a found­ing di­rec­tor of Na­tional Busi­ness Re­view), says he wrote Last­ing Im­pres­sions as a so­cial his­tory. He por­trays a so­ci­ety in which the lo­cal pa­per was con­sid­ered al­most as in­dis­pens­able as the pub and the gen­eral store.

Early news­pa­pers served as agents of so­cial co­he­sion – the glue that held emerg­ing com­mu­ni­ties to­gether by not only pro­vid­ing im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion, but also serv­ing as a fo­rum for de­bate on is­sues of com­mon in­ter­est. Many were cranked out on hand-op­er­ated presses ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing as few as 100 copies a day.

At nearly 700 pages, Last­ing Im­pres­sions – pub­lished in as­so­ci­a­tion with the Alexan­der Turn­bull Li­brary – is a doorstop of a book, painstak­ingly re­searched. Grant has dug deep and un­earthed a wealth of de­tail about the early New Zealand press and the char­ac­ters in­volved in it.

He says it wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble with­out Papers Past, the Na­tional Li­brary’s dig­i­tal ar­chive of early news­pa­pers – a re­search tool not avail­able to Guy Sc­hole­field, whose News­pa­pers in New Zealand, pub­lished in 1958, was pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered the de­fin­i­tive work on the sub­ject.

Grant de­bunks the con­ven­tional view that the early New Zealand press was pri­mar­ily po­lit­i­cal in char­ac­ter. Al­though ac­knowl­edg­ing that sev­eral in­flu­en­tial 19th-cen­tury politi­cians – Julius Vo­gel, Al­fred Domett, Charles Fox, John Bal­lance – were for­mer news­pa­per­men, Grant says their par­tic­i­pa­tion in pol­i­tics was of­ten a nat­u­ral con­se­quence of their in­volve­ment in pub­lic af­fairs through jour­nal­ism. But news­pa­pers with purely po­lit­i­cal agen­das usu­ally didn’t last.

Typ­i­cally, early papers were es­tab­lished by trades­men printers, whose pri­mary mo­ti­va­tion was to put bread on the fam­ily ta­ble. At­tract­ing ad­ver­tis­ers was the pri­or­ity, ahead of push­ing po­lit­i­cal bar­rows that might have alien­ated com­mer­cial in­ter­ests.

19th-cen­tury news­pa­pers dis­played a level of eru­di­tion that would shame the Face­book gen­er­a­tion.

That didn’t mean, he says, that papers were not will­ing to court con­tro­versy. Ed­i­tors and pro­pri­etors brought with them from Bri­tain and Ire­land a tra­di­tion of plain speak­ing and didn’t hes­i­tate to at­tack prom­i­nent fig­ures. Cor­re­spon­dence col­umns fre­quently in­cluded letters “of a length and fe­roc­ity to­day’s ed­i­tors would blanch at”.

Grant notes that read­ers, as well as jour­nal­ists, were highly lit­er­ate. And al­though many early news­pa­per­men had lit­tle for­mal ed­u­ca­tion, his book makes clear that 19th-cen­tury news­pa­pers dis­played a level of elo­quence and eru­di­tion that would shame the Face­book gen­er­a­tion.

LAST­ING IM­PRES­SIONS: The story of New Zealand’s news­pa­pers, 1840-1920, by Ian F Grant (Fraser Books, $69.50)

Christchurch’s Weekly Press in pro­duc­tion around the turn of the 20th cen­tury.

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