Leonard John Cronin was born in Aramoho, Wanganui, on 16 November 1900, the son of Joseph Henry Cronin, an engineer, and his wife, Margaret Edwards. He was educated at Woodville District High School and began work as a cadet journalist on the Patea and Waverley Press in 1916. In 1919 he began a career as reporter, sub-editor and feature writer on newspapers in Greymouth, Palmerston North, Wellington and Auckland, which led to his reporting from the parliamentary press gallery for the New Zealand Times (1925–27) and the Auckland Sun (1927–30). Cronin was cable editor for the Sun at the time of its collapse in 1930. The depression had begun and, unable to find a permanent job, he became a free-lance press gallery reporter for a group of South Island newspapers. He was also for a short while temporary reporter for the Evening Post. He married Dorothy Teresa Dudson, a music teacher, at Carterton on 8 January 1929; they were to have one son.
In May 1932 Cronin became editor of the Dunedin-based Catholic weekly newspaper, the New Zealand Tablet. His predecessor, James Kelly, a fiery Irish nationalist priest, had emphasised the Irish aspect of New Zealand Catholicism and had printed much political and historical material about Ireland. Cronin gave the weekly a different character. He used his journalistic experience to replace much of the material with comments on New Zealand politics and articles on a broad range of international affairs. Consistently advocating an economic policy based on the papal encyclical, Quadragesimo anno , he pointed the way to ‘a social system where a fair distribution of wealth’ would bring ‘justice, comfort and security for the mass of the people’. He saw in the 1930s depression the paradox of under-consumption in the midst of over-production. Industrialists were self-seeking and the government had ‘ignored the general welfare’, he charged. Although the Tablet ’s politics were ostensibly non-party, Cronin welcomed the election victory of the New Zealand Labour Party in 1935.
He regularly campaigned for stricter censorship of films and books and vigorously promoted the laymen’s movement, Catholic Action, as a way of spreading Catholic ideals and doing charitable work in the wider community. In the final two years of his editorship, Cronin devoted much space to defending General Francisco Franco’s nationalist insurgents in Spain and attacking the republican government as atheistic and communist.
Cronin left the Tablet in 1937 and was a political reporter on the Evening Post for a short period. From the early 1940s he edited a variety of trade and house magazines in Wellington, including Orchardist of New Zealand , New Zealand Jeweller and Watchmaker , New Zealand Railway Review and the New Zealand Financial Times. He became managing editor of the New Zealand Licensee in 1952. For the next 24 years he argued the hotel industry’s point of view on issues such as the extension of trading hours in 1967, the gradual introduction of taverns and licensing trusts and the increasingly futile triennial licensing poll.
In 1934 Cronin had begun a purely private publishing venture with the first issue of the Students’ Digest , a magazine intended to help school students better understand world affairs. It was to have ‘neither politics nor creed’ and to be ‘strictly impartial’. By the early 1950s it had both senior and junior editions. The magazine originally had only four pages, but gradually expanded to 20 pages by the 1970s. It eventually attained a circulation of 80,000 in New Zealand, the Pacific islands and elsewhere. The Students’ Digest was a costly labour of love, and Cronin made frequent unsuccessful appeals to the Department of Education for a subsidy towards the costs of publication.
Leonard Cronin was a life member of the Wellington Bowling Club. He also enjoyed golf and public speaking. He retired in 1976 and died at Wellington later that year, on 1 November, survived by his wife and son. The Students’ Digest was continued for four years by his son, J. B. (Barrie) Cronin, who had earlier joined his father in his publishing firm, Cronin Publications.