Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Belshaw's World - New England’s newspaper history bespeaks change

I am writing a short piece for the new Companion to the Australian Media on the remarkable story of the Vincent newspaper family.

It’s hard to fit the story into 500 words, for we are talking of three generations and multiple mastheads. Local mastheads included the Glen Innes Examiner and Uralla Times.

I will write a little more on the Vincents later. Immediately, my research drew me back into the past days of New England’s newspaper world.

Today we forget just how important the printing press was. It provided a vehicle not just for books, but also pamphlets and then newspapers. According to Wikipedia, by the early 19th century there were 52 London papers and over 100 other titles.

The political and economic impact of the printing revolution was just as significant as the internet today.

The authorities struggled to deal with new forms of political expression. New concepts emerged such as the fourth estate and freedom of the press.

Advertising was born, fuelling emergence of what we now call mass consumer goods. Advertising allowed the price of newspapers to be reduced. Mass circulation papers emerged.

The new papers fed an ever-growing demand for information and entertainment. The invention of the telegraph made news from far distant places accessible.

The public demand for information was remarkable.

On the moving frontier in the Australian colonies, newspapers were handed on, read in reading rooms but also by firelight in distant camps.

A single paper could be read by dozens of people until, finally, it met its end lighting fires, pasted onto walls as insulation or as toilet paper. In the days before toilet paper, newspapers were cut into squares as a substitute.

As towns emerged in the Australian colonies, they wanted their own papers. Powerful figures fighting for their commercial and political interests were often prepared to fund papers.

In the Clarence where either inclusion in Queensland or, alternatively, creation of a new colony was a hot issue, one paper was founded to support the cause, another to oppose it.

The new papers were highly unstable, opening and closing all the time. Often, they vanished without historical trace.

In Armidale, the presence of Frank Newton’s Armidale Telegraph is mentioned in the historical record. However, no copies were known to have survived until one was found, by accident, in the walls of an old Armidale house.

Start up costs were relatively low. All you needed was a press and some initial working capital. Those presses were constantly recycled, moving down the chain to new smaller papers as their original owners replaced them with new equipment.

By the first decades of the twentieth century, even small New England communities had their own newspapers, bigger towns had two.

Many of the names are gone now. Who remembers the Tingha Miner or even knows that Tingha once had its own paper? Yet their influence lingers.

The two decades following the First World War saw consolidation.

Newspapers merged in Inverell, Glen Innes and then Armidale. The Tamworth Observer changed its name to The Northern Daily Leader and launched a campaign to become the premier inland Northern daily, attacking the metropolitan newspapers on one side, the purely local papers on the other.

While many papers remained sole proprietorships, new companies emerged. Northern Newspapers and the Armidale Newspaper Company are examples.

The papers were in fierce competition and fostered that local parochialism that has always been New England’s curse. Yet they could also combine. The rapid expansion of New State agitation in the early 1920s was led by the papers.

When first radio and TV came to the North, it remained locally controlled. Even in the late 1960s, every media outlet in New England was locally or regionally owned.

Then everything changed. By 2,000, local ownership was limited to a handful of independents.

With that loss went the capacity to combine in any coordinated way. Newspapers were split between a Queensland looking APN and Rural Press, two organisations that barely talked to each other. Radio and TV were integrated into national organisations.

The newspapers themselves still represented the local interest, but it was a much diminished interest for it was now purely local.

Looking at the Northern Daily Leader as an example, the old Leader consciously positioned its coverage to provide a Northern focus.

The Leader still carries a limited range of broader Northern stories, but the days when it outsold the Sydney Morning Herald in Armidale are long gone.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 16 November 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

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