Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Belshaw's World - newspapers' vital role in regional development

As part of my research into the history of the broader New England, I have continued my reading on the history of the country press.

It’s quite remarkable, really, just how small those early newspapers were. Some were just four sheets with circulations in the low hundreds. Not surprisingly, there was a constant battle for survival, with papers opening and closing all the time.

As with any new business, the first year was the worst, with papers pleading to people to advertise or subscribe. Even after that first year, there was a constant battle with bad debts.

Why would anyone enter into such a risky business, one where the chances of financial success were so uncertain?

Communities wanted newspapers because they saw it as a sign of their importance. Many of the papers were in fact funded by community subscription. Others were created to represent different political interests.

Our early parliamentarians were unpaid. That plus poor transport meant that many lived to Sydney.

To ensure election, they needed a voice to speak to their electors in the remote Northern Districts. A newspaper was one way to achieve this.

Newspapers were also funded by supporters of the main political causes of the time: self-government versus the status quo, squatters versus free selectors, liberal vs conservative, free traders versus protectionist.

All the main political debates played themselves out not just on the pages of the papers, but in the changing ownership of the papers themselves. One outcome was a proliferation of papers in even small towns.

While this helps explain the growth of the newspaper press, it was still a very risky business. I think that our early printers and editors must have had ink in their veins.

Those early newspapers took themselves very seriously indeed.

In their first editions, many published long descriptions of their objectives and roles. They would represent the interests of their district. They would speak without fear or favour. They would scrutinise government and educate the people.

Did they live up to these aspirations? Well, yes and no.

Considering their limited resources, many of them did a pretty good job. However, the need to appeal to a sometimes fractious community, to attract subscribers, did limit their freedom to speech.

One thing I had not realised was the importance of government advertising.

The central government in Sydney was the largest single advertiser. Papers could rise or fall on that advertising. Further, individual governments were quite prepared to switch advertising between papers to punish or favour. This dictated a certain discretion.

Somehow, that has quite a modern feel!

The last decades of the nineteenth century in colonial New England were dominated by the rise of the town. The civic leaders in all those towns were concerned with civic improvement, with the establishment of respectable and stable communities.

In Armidale, the sometimes disreputable social patterns of the convict and immediate post convict period were replaced by a more ordered society with its focus on family. Drunkenness remained, but sobriety ruled.

Bigger towns made for bigger markets. Papers began to prosper.

One of the big problems facing all the country papers at the end of the colonial period can be summarised simply as Sydney’s economic dominance.

Sydney advertising agencies controlled advertising. The papers were compelled to accept supplements and provide free advertising space at often ruinous cost. To counter this, the country press began to organise.

Today their actions would be a breach of competition legislation, yet they made simple practical sense.

They tried to ban the ubiquitous supplements, to create their own. They tried to create cooperative mechanisms to access metro advertisers in a coordinated way.

Getting all those small individual and competitive newspaper proprietors to cooperate was a bit like herding cats. Over two decades, there was failure after failure. Finally, success was achieved.

I really marvel at the perseverance shown by the leaders of the country press during this period.

Their success benefited all in commercial terms, helping establish a financially viable newspaper industry. However, the cost to them in terms of time and money was huge.

All this is long gone.

The heroes have vanished into the past along with the independent sector they created. Yet even today the country press that we have remains their monument.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 25 January 2012. 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, here for 2012.

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