Page 1: Biography
Teacher, journalist, newspaper proprietor
This biography, written by Neil Nelson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Alexander McMinn was born at Dunlady, near Dundonald, County Down, Ireland, on 28 August 1842, the son of Francis McMinn, a doctor, and his wife, Mary Day. Little is known of his early years, but in 1863 he arrived in Auckland to cover the New Zealand wars for a London newspaper. McMinn then turned to teaching, accepting a position as first headmaster of Wanganui Grammar School. In December 1866 he became sole teacher at Turakina Common School, but after a disagreement with the school committee established his own private school, the Turakina Commercial Academy, in May 1868. In Turakina he met Helen O'Riley, whom he married at Masterton on 8 April 1874; they were to have six children.
In the early 1870s McMinn returned to journalism in Wanganui with the Evening Herald, owned by John Ballance. He travelled regularly between Wanganui and Wellington, becoming acquainted with leading Maori in the area. Well versed in the Maori language, he often acted as interpreter between Maori leaders and government officials.
In 1875 McMinn became editor of the Rangitikei Advocate and Manawatu Argus. However, he was determined to establish his own newspaper, and after considering setting up in opposition to the Feilding Guardian he founded the daily Manawatu Standard. The first issue appeared on 29 November 1880, with an editorial written by Ballance. It consisted of a single sheet of paper printed on both sides and folded down the middle.
The Palmerston North area seemed to McMinn to have potential for development, but establishing his paper was a hard struggle. Constant financial and staffing problems and poor communications forced him to call on all of his initiative, resourcefulness and strength. There were also frequent editorial clashes between McMinn, a northern Ireland Protestant, and John Boulger Dungan, a Dublin Catholic, who edited the bi-weekly Manawatu Times. Dungan accused McMinn of pirating his news telegrams and of 'wallowing in low notoriety', and hinted at immorality. McMinn, who had previously been sued for libel himself, charged Dungan with criminal libel: he asked for £300 damages and received £25.
By 1881 the Manawatu Standard was well established, and with a claimed circulation of 1,500 was the district's largest paper. There were even different town and country editions, and a new steam-driven printing press had replaced the original hand-press.
McMinn next established the Woodville Examiner. He hoped this would be the first of a chain of North Island papers, but a planned Opunake venture never proceeded. The Examiner absorbed much of McMinn's energy and stamina. Twice a week he rode through the treacherous Manawatu Gorge with columns of type, set in Palmerston North. The following day he would print the paper, using his original hand-press, before returning to Palmerston North later in the day.
Even for a man of McMinn's strength – he stood over six feet tall and weighed over 18 stone – these exertions took their toll. In 1885 he sold the Examiner to concentrate on the Standard. As early as 1881 he had been concerned for his health. He remained with the Standard until 1890 when he sold it to Frederick Pirani. He then moved to Masterton as a sub-editor on the Wairarapa Daily Times. Ill health forced him to leave, and after recuperating in Palmerston North he joined the Auckland Star in about 1912.
McMinn died of bronchial illness at his Devonport home on 21 October 1919; Helen McMinn died in 1924. Alexander McMinn's untiring efforts, editorial ability, versatility and business acumen saw the Manawatu Standard survive its difficult formative years to become a flourishing newspaper.