Pioneer Newspapers


by Reginald Brian O'Neill (1932–65), Journalist, Christchurch.

Pioneer Newspapers

Although newspapers did not pioneer printing in New Zealand, they have always been closely and vitally linked with it. The Bay of Islands had seen printing 10 years before it saw a newspaper. On 31 July 1830 the schooner Active arrived at the bay from Sydney. Aboard were the Rev. W. Yate, a James Smith, a 15-year-old printer, and a press. Yate wrote in September 1831: “employed with James Smith in printing off a few hymns in the native language. We succeeded beyond our most sanguine expectations”. Several copies of work done by Yate and Smith are believed to be among the records of the Church Missionary Society in England.

The New Zealand press was founded by Samuel Revans “of rough exterior, careless in dress (who) wore a conspicuously large Panama hat. His eyes were dark, penetrating, and deeply set, surmounted by thick, bushy eyebrows. His manner was restless, and his speech, though intelligent, often coarse”. After arriving back in London from a stormy experience in the Canadian colony, he was engaged by E. G. Wakefield to produce a journal for the New Zealand Company's expedition then fitting out to colonise in the antipodes. Before the expedition left England, Revans had used type and a Columbia press to produce, on 21 August 1839, the first issue of the New Zealand Gazette. The second issue (four pages for 1s.) appeared from a whare on the banks of the Hutt River eight months later; and this latter, of 18 April 1840, was the first newspaper to be printed in New Zealand.

On 18 April 1840, soon after the arrival of the sailing ship Adelaide at Port Nicholson, Wellington, Samuel Revans set up his plant ashore and produced the first newspaper. After 20 issues this New Zealand Gazette added the words and Britannia Spectator to its title, to include the proposed name for Wellington City. The Gazette waged war against the Government in Auckland and warmly defended the New Zealand Company against its enemies; its unyielding policies were its ruin. Its successor in 1844 was the New Zealand Spectator and Cook's Straits Guardian, which appeared at the instigation of a committee of six settlers but with the same printers who had been employed on the Gazette. One day, six months later, a printer inserted in one issue an advertisement, and, in the issue following, a “scandalous” rejoinder. The five printers were dismissed; but they banded together and produced the Wellington Independent. The Spectator committee reacted by slyly purchasing the printers' rented plant, but four months later the printers had got new machinery from Sydney. They did well enough to absorb the Spectator in August 1865. The Independent continued until 1874, when it was incorporated with a new paper, the New Zealand Times, which continued until 1927 when it was itself bought out by the Dominion proprietary and then closed down.

The New Zealand Advertiser and Bay of Islands Gazette began in 1840 two months after Revans had produced a paper at Port Nicholson. Published at Kororareka, its contents included the first official notices and proclamations, for Wellington had not then become the seat of government. Moderate suggestions for reform by its editor, the Rev. B. Quaife, excited official rebuke and, after threats from no less a person than the Colonial Secretary, Lieutenant Willoughby Shortland, the paper closed. In December 1840 it was succeeded by an official publication, the New Zealand Government Gazette, the forerunner of the official organ now issued each Thursday from the Government Printer's Office in Wellington.

The first Auckland paper appeared on 10 July 1841; but the enduring journal was not printed until 1863. This was the New Zealand Herald and it was distinctive because it began life as a business enterprise and not as a political mouthpiece. Its founder was a Scot, W. C. Wilson, whose sons, William and Joseph, joined forces with A. G. Horton, owner of a potentially powerful rival, the Southern Cross. Wilson and Horton Ltd. is now the biggest newspaper publisher in New Zealand.

Politics and the Early Press

Politicians established four important papers in the South Island. The first was the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle which, like Revans's Gazette, was a New Zealand Company production. It came out for the first time on 12 March 1842 and its editors and contributors included such well-known political figures as Alfred Domett, William Fox, Edward Stafford, F. D. Bell, and J. C. Richmond. For nearly 10 years it was the only vehicle of settlement expression in the south.

The Canterbury Association made similar arrangements for printing a newspaper as had the New Zealand Company; and when type and press were set up a few days after the arrival of four emigrant ships at Lyttelton, the Lyttelton Times appeared. This was on 11 January 1851. James Edward FitzGerald, later to be first superintendent of the province, was its editor in the beginning, but he left it after two years for a full political life. In 1861, concluding that the Canterbury Provincial Government, which was supported by the Lyttelton Times, was pursuing an unwise monetary policy – particularly with regard to the raising of a loan to bore a railway tunnel through hills separating Lyttelton and Christchurch – he and a syndicate founded the Press as an opposition pamphlet. The Press Co. bought out the renamed Lyttelton Times in 1935 and wound it up.

The Otago settlement, which was founded in 1848, had for a short time its own newspaper, the Otago News, edited and produced by H. B. Graham. His early death saw the end of the News which, however, took shape again as the Otago Witness in 1851.

From 1848 onwards, several other papers appeared in Dunedin; but not until the vigorous and large ideas of Julius Vogel began to be applied to the Otago Daily Times, did a long-lived paper appear. There was no preliminary weekly, or bi-weekly; it appeared on 15 November 1861 as New Zealand's first full-fledged daily. Vogel was part-owner, but edited both the daily and its weekly companion, the Otago Witness.

Many newspapers were originally family owned, but most are now controlled by limited-liability public companies, some with stock exchange listings. Family ownership is largely confined to the smaller provincial papers: for example, the Bells, of the Ashburton Guardian, and the Muirs, of the Gisborne Herald. The outstanding exception among the metropolitans is the Wellington Evening Post. The Post was established by Henry Blundell, a Dubliner, in 1865, and “by concentrating on newspaper production as a vocation the Blundell family steadily consolidated its position.” The founder made it a rule of the business, followed in general by his successors, to take no direct part in public life. He believed that if this rule was followed the paper and the men who conducted it would be free to criticise, if necessary, the conduct of public bodies and companies.

Six other New Zealand papers existed when the Taranaki Herald's first issue was printed on 4 August 1852; only the Herald remains to this day. It was founded by William Collins, formerly a printer working for the London Morning Post, and by Garland William Woon, a 21-year-old printer who had served his apprenticeship in the composing room of the New Zealander. Woon was nominally the editor. William Morgan Crompton, sub-editor, was the third member of the staff.

Difficulties of Pioneer Papers

The press in its early days was motley, although some papers were excellent examples of printing. Meagre supplies of paper were responsible for some ludicrous or wry occurrences. For many weeks, for example, the Spectator was obliged to appear on red blotting paper, and the porous material took the inked type remarkably well. Sometimes the printers were compelled to print on paper of variable size, material and colour, and specimens are still in existence printed in green and blue, such as might be used nowadays on posters.

The Auckland Times, established on 5 September 1842 and owned and edited by Henry Falwasser, was an extraordinary specimen. For 10 numbers everything went well; then Shortland once more stepped in and prevented the use of the printing plant which had been bought by the Government and was then being used for the paper. But Falwasser was an ingenious and resourceful man. He gathered a miscellaneous assortment of old type, most of it suitable for printing headlines and advertisements. With the aid of a mangle and coarse paper he triumphantly produced his paper once more. Sometimes the pressure of the mangle was so violent that ink was driven right through the paper and words of the letterpress could be read there by reversal; sometimes it was so faint the words were barely legible. Words were printed with letters of various type, so that small capitals, italics, and Old English met together in the same word, producing a comical and often mystifying result. Nevertheless, “the paper afforded great amusement, and doubtless had a good circulation, especially as it lashed out to the complete satisfaction of the public”.

On one occasion the printer of the Nelson Examiner appealed to the paper's readers:

sic Examiner

The appeal must have had some response, for the following number of the paper appeared on its due date. An advertisement in another paper read:


As publication was not interrupted, paper must have come from somewhere. The Otago Witness was not so fortunate. It appealed at least once to its readers for paper of any kind, “otherwise it will cease to appear”. The worst happened, and the Witness temporarily retired from the scene.

Character of the Pioneer Press

Powerful writing, some of it irresponsible and vituperative, but most of it couched in a forceful, often dogmatic vein almost unknown today, produced explosive reactions among the more volatile settlers who read their early papers as much to see what persons they knew were writing as for the views the writers were expressing. There was a sanguine business in the early existence of the New Zealand Herald and Auckland Gazette (1842), whose editor was a Dr Martin, “a medical man of considerable literary ability, forcible utterances, and powerful frame”. Martin wrote with an iron pen and laid about him so fiercely that before two months had elapsed he had been threatened with two or three actions for libel. One day a Government official entered the paper office and seized some of the editor's manuscripts. Martin was furious and challenged the official to a duel and, when the latter refused, posted him in the town as a blackguard and a coward. The paper, after running for only 10 months, collapsed in tumult.

The New Zealander, begun on 3 April 1865 as the first morning penny paper, published an article on Hone Heke's war. The article offended naval men, who considered that it slurred their honour. Armed with a hawser, a large number of sailors from warships in Auckland Harbour came to the door of the New Zealander office in Shortland Crescent, passed their rope through to the back and then over the roof. A full retraction – or the building would be overturned, they said. The proprietors, John Williamson and W. C. Wilson, yielded the point.

High Casualty Rate

About 500 different newspapers have appeared since 1840, but most have failed to survive. For example, one Irishman, Joseph Ivess, founded no fewer than 26 papers in New Zealand, in addition to five which he had started in Australia. The Greymouth Evening Star and the Akaroa Mail remain as reminders of his compulsive excursions. He died in 1919, in his seventy-sixth year. James Henry Claridge, who died in 1946 aged 84, did better. He began 11 papers in the 22 years before 1920 and five of them are still publishing. They are the Eltham Argus, Martinborough Star, Taumarunui Press, Huntly Press, and Morrinsville Star. By world standards, however, New Zealand has a very large number of newspapers, owing mainly to the difficulties (geography and scattered centres of population) of building a daily national circulation such as exists in Britain or even in New South Wales.

The greatest number of newspapers published in New Zealand at one time was 193, including 67 dailies. This was in 1910, but by that time big advances in production machinery were taking place and only those papers able to lay out the capital for improved plant to meet or beat their competitors, and with assets and patronage sturdy enough to tide them over several periods of economic recession and of wartime austerity, were able to survive.

During the present century attempts to start new papers have generally failed. There were 79 new papers up to 1920; few have lasted. The Wellington Dominion is an outstanding example of success. It was begun as a morning paper in 1907 with the aim of filling a need for a newspaper to support Conservative political interests. But the Labour Party was not so successful in its attempt to set up newspapers. The Maoriland Worker was begun as a monthly in 1910 in Wellington; it finished its life as the Standard, a weekly, in 1960. An attempt to float the Times Newspaper Co. to publish a daily following the 1935 General Election, which returned a Labour Government with a large majority, failed to get support. The Southern Cross, a Wellington-based daily, lasted only five years from 1946. Labour interests still have one daily paper of their own, the Grey River Argus, Greymouth. The Argus was founded in 1865 and taken over as a politically controlled organ in 1919.

The independent Sun newspapers in Christchurch and Auckland caused much excitement during a stormy existence which roused competitors to action strong enough to finally extinguish them. These papers were founded by Edward Chalmers Huie, an Australian, who had been editor of the Evening News, in Christchurch. First, in 1914, he began the Sun in competition with the Christchurch Star and Evening News; and its success was assured. But Huie sought other fields to conquer.

In 1927 he went to Auckland and founded a second Sun to compete with the Auckland Star, conducted by the Brett Printing and Publishing Co. in which Sir Cecil Leys was a majority shareholder. Leys and the proprietors of the New Zealand Herald bought out the Auckland Sun three years later. In the meantime, Leys had taken over the Lyttelton Times Co., which published the Christchurch Star in competition with the Sun, and merged it with his own interests under the name of New Zealand Newspapers Ltd. A combination of depression, advertising-rate cutting, and price reductions killed the Christchurch Sun. When this afternoon paper was finally extinguished in 1935 the price of the deal with its company and publishers of the Christchurch Press was the cessation of a pioneer journal, the Christchurch Times, originally the Lyttelton Times. After the end of the Suns, Huie became the moving spirit behind the attempt to establish the Labour Times Newspaper Co.; in 1940 he took over the Hawkes Bay Daily Mail (like the Suns, modelled on the London namesake), which had begun to publish in 1938. But this failed in 1941. It was not alone; in the previous 10 years 48 New Zealand papers had folded up.

Character and Impact

Despite the scattered population and the isolation of individual papers, there is a remarkable uniformity of presentation of news. This is partly the result of identical overseas and inland news being received through a national news agency to which every daily paper belongs. Highly individual papers with pugnacious, uncompromising, and influential owners, editors, and political opinions are a memory of another age; papers these days report the news in a manner more impartial, more balanced, and more complete than did the press of “the good old days”. Editorial opinions, now not nearly so influential among a highly literate people with opportunity for direct access to news sources and publications of contrary opinion, confine their expression to separate columns of leading articles.

Direct competition by rival newspapers in the same town is unknown, for no centre produces more than one paper on the same morning or evening each day. The eight dailies in the four main cities – Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin – have an aggregate circulation of over 700,000 copies a day; 31 dailies in smaller towns sell 270,000 copies a day. A trade estimate is that almost every household takes at least one paper; and that each copy is, on average, read by two people.

For example, the New Zealand Herald (Auckland) and the Dominion (Wellington) cover the North Island between them, as well as their home cities; and the Christchurch Press circulates over much of the South Island. These three papers are favoured by the “dead” hours of the early morning for their wide-ranging delivery by private road transport and chartered railcar. But most journals (11 each morning and 32 each evening) are largely parochial in distribution. However well the eight major metropolitan papers are distributed beyond their own towns, they cannot hope to provide full local news and advertising coverage for the smaller centres through which their transport passes; hence a strong provincial press which in the last few years has become an aggressive factor in newspaper competition for national advertising contracts.

The Provincial Press

One of the most interesting features of the modern newspaper press of New Zealand is the concerted effort of provincial proprietaries to gain a larger share of the advertising revenue, particularly that paid by national advertisers – oil companies, soap makers, food and drug manufacturers, travel concerns, and so on. Provincial papers could not continue without money from advertising; national advertisements have tended to be monopolised by the big city dailies. Five out of seven dailies publish outside the main centres; and the aggregate potential readers in the areas they deliver to comprise nearly six-tenths of the total population. By combining to quote special rates they hope to gain more of national advertisement revenue. Some provincial newspapers (always relatively strong) have increased their circulations faster than the metropolitan press. Most of them have excellent equipment and a few, more than the metropolitans, use spot colour for advertisements. Official figures show that, on the average, people who live in or near to self-sufficient provincial cities and towns have more purchasing power than their big-city cousins; in one recent year, £85 per annum more, the big-city average being £943 per annum. Retail sales statistics show the extra money is spent in the nearest main shopping area.

These facts help to account for New Zealand's thriving provincial press, which prints the advertisements for the well-patronised retailers as well as conducts substantial job-printing businesses. At the present time this section competes for national advertisements as a separate trade group called the New Zealand Provincial Press Inc. They have 18 members in 14 cities; and recently audited circulations ranged from 6,600 (Marlborough Express) to more than 19,000 (Southland Times) a day; and their combined circulations topped that of the New Zealand Herald. The typical strength of the provincial press is shown by the case of Gisborne, with a population of over 25,000 people. The average Gisborne taxpayer paid £414 income tax in a recent year, the second highest in New Zealand. The Gisborne Herald's circulation at the time was 10,500.

Recent Trade Developments

Probably the most significant post-war development has been the establishment of a papermaking mill based on the man-made forests in the North Island. Until 1955, when the Tasman Pulp and Paper Co. began producing newsprint from its plant at Kawerau in the Bay of Plenty, newspapers had depended on imports of paper. Moreover, with only one newsprint machine operating at Kawerau, newspaper proprietors were loath to change over to wholly New Zealand supply lest they alienate traditional sources by not continuing with contracts that might be difficult to renew in the event of accident to the single machine. When, however, a second machine came into operation, many proprietors greatly increased their New Zealand orders. Some papers are now printed wholly on New Zealand made newsprint, except for special issues or important occasions. New Zealand newsprint is said to be furry, but tougher than most overseas brands (although delivery runners find it harder to fold). Canadian newsprint is fine but brittle and more liable to break as it races at high speed through the cylinders of a rotary printing press. Newspapers use over 52,000 tons of paper worth about £4 million a year. Daily newspapers produce over 290 million copies in a year. The value of these papers is over £105 million, nearly 75 per cent of it from the sale of advertising space. The rest comes from subscribers and from casual sales.

Other recent significant developments in the newspaper industry in the last few years have been a combination of newspapers and job-printing and publishing interests in three North Island cities; capital increases, some of them with the intention of combating rumoured take-over bids from Australian publishing organisations; the transition of the New Zealand Herald proprietary into a public company, including shareholding by members of the staff; the takeover of the Westport News to be printed in the home town of its purchaser, the Nelson Evening Mail; the direct linking of Parliament by teleprinter channels with some newspaper offices; the formation of an independent news reporting agency in Wellington with metropolitan and provincial subscribers; and steps by all newspapers to combat competition for advertising, news, and staff from improvements and innovations to the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation's radio and television services.

The acquisition of Palmerston North's morning Times (circulation 11,000) and its unexpected closure by the Wellington Publishing Co. was a significant event in 1963. In its wake came an amazingly successful weekly, the News, delivered free (mainly by milk vendors) to nearly every household in the city; and as it offered a cheap alternative avenue for local advertising it was supported enthusiastically by local businessmen. Its proprietor, D. A. Davies, was former managing editor of the Times and had been publishing the free Feilding Herald for more than a year. These developments indicated an important trend in New Zealand journalism. They certainly gave concern to the established papers, which depend on sales for about 25 per cent of their revenue, whereas the “throwaway”, usually of six to a dozen tabloid pages each week or month, was paid for by local advertising and circulated to every home in a district surrounding a suburban shopping area. Most “throwaways” are conducted by professional journalists and many have five-figure circulations envied by conventional daily papers.

At the beginning of 1964 the Wellington Publishing Co.'s Dominion was under pressure of a takeover bid by a London-based international publishing group headed by Lord Thomson. Earlier approaches by the Australian Consolidated Press (which has bought land in Auckland) had failed, but other Australian and Auckland newspaper interests have also entered the “takeover” field. As a result of the Government's attitude, the London takeover offer was withdrawn. In 1965 the News Media Ownership Act was passed which safeguards the present position.

Although business moves predominate in the list of developments, news is still the primary consideration of newspapers, whose outlook was summarised by a chairman of the New Zealand Press Association a few years ago when he said:

Circulations seem to vindicate the claim. The Timaru Herald, for example, has a near saturation coverage in South Canterbury, where it sells one paper for every four people in the total population of the district. The smallest of the metropolitan papers has a circulation of more than 30,000 papers a day. New Zealand's biggest paper, the New Zealand Herald, sells about 210,000 papers a day, about one and a half times the number sold by its rival, the Auckland Star, the biggest evening paper in the country.

The “Typical” Metropolitan

An imaginary, but typical metropolitan paper in New Zealand might have a circulation approaching 100,000. It would turn over more than £1 million a year. A quarter of this sum would come from 3d. sales, the rest from the sale of advertising space. The paper would employ 300 people and its wages bill would be over £300,000 a year. Production costs would be over £700,000. The paper would be printed on a six-unit rotary machine which cost £185,000. Each day the machine would print more than 25 tons of newsprint costing about £1,800. The rate of printing would be up to 70,000 copies an hour, compared with Samuel Revans's Columbia press capacity of about 200 copies an hour. In the bulk store of this imaginary newspaper there would be enough rolls – each weighing about 1,600 lb – put aside to provide for the printing of normal-sized (32 page) papers for eight months without replenishment. Literary staff – reporters, photographers, copy readers, proof readers, leader writers, and specialists — would number about 80 people. Another 40 people would be employed as part-time correspondents, sporting reporters, or critics and reviewers. The rest of the full-time staff would be office workers dealing with accounting, advertising, and subscription; or skilled mechanical labour involving over 12 trades – from electrical engineering to photoengraving.

Individual newspapers have installed their own wire-photo machines since the Second World War. These ingenious instruments work over an ordinary telephone toll circuit for the transmission and reception of news pictures. Transmitters are generally portable and can be used by photographers at any Post Office toll station to send illustrations back to their home offices. Some offices have introduced teletypesetting machines, mainly for classified advertisements. Some receive advertisements 24 hours a day by telephone through an automatic answering machine.


For some years now evening newspapers in the four main cities have on Saturday evenings produced sports editions with magazine reading sections. Similar sports papers can also be found in Nelson and Hawke's Bay. In former times the weekly editions of many newspapers – no fewer than 22 of them at the turn of the century – were important adjuncts to newspapers. Some of them circulated throughout the land and even to Australia. Among the most prominent were the Weekly Press (Christchurch), which led the field with a record circulation of 40,000 copies an issue in 1901; the Weekly News (Auckland), the Otago Witness (Dunedin), and the Canterbury Times (Christchurch). These papers, and others similar, began as mere reprints of their parent dailies, but later they developed characters of their own; they led the way in pictorial journalism towards the end of last century with half-tone pictures superseding line drawings. Their lavishly illustrated Christmas annuals (the covers and some inside pages were in colour) were fine examples of the lithographer's and printer's art. All but the Weekly News (founded 1863) failed to meet the changing pattern of newspaper circulation. As the distribution systems of the dailies improved, with better roads, with new bus services, with more frequent rail trips, and even with air deliveries, the value of the weeklies lessened, and one by one they closed down – the Canterbury Times in 1917, the Weekly Press in 1928, and the Otago Witness in 1932.

Seventy weekly papers still circulate, but most of them are confined to small towns. Four dominate their field with national circulations that rival some of the metropolitan dailies. At the top of the list is Truth (Wellington), followed by the Women's Weekly (Auckland), the Weekly News (Auckland), and the Listener (Wellington). A fifth large weekly, the Free Lance (Wellington), ceased in 1961.


NEW ZEALAND PRESS 22-Apr-09 Reginald Brian O'Neill (1932–65), Journalist, Christchurch.