Story: Newspapers

Page 3. The heyday of newspapers, 1900–1939

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Through the early 20th century New Zealand’s newspapers multiplied and expanded. As readership and advertising revenue increased, their profitability became more significant to their owners than political ambitions. By 1911 New Zealand had 64 daily papers for a population of just over a million. There were two main types – a large urban daily owned by a company or family, or a small or medium-sized country paper, sometimes appearing daily but more likely two or three times a week.

Right-wing writer

Arthur Field began his journalism career in 1901 with the Wellington daily, the Evening Post. His right-wing views led him to switch to its more conservative rival, the Dominion, when it began publication in 1907. He wrote a widely read column called ‘Without prejudice’, although he was an active anti-Semite and extreme conservative. During the great strike of 1913, Field was responsible for editorial attacks on the strikers. These were so provocative that strikers were rumoured to be about to storm the newspaper offices. Field’s later writings influenced far-right movements in Britain, the US and elsewhere.

Layout and illustrations

There was little effort to lay out stories in a reader-friendly manner. A story might run right down the page and across to the next column until it finished. A forest of tiny advertisements covered the front page. It took sensational events such as the surrender of Germany in the First World War for a news story to make the front page.

However, photographs (black and white only) illustrated many articles, and the daily editorial cartoon was a central feature of most papers. Several New Zealand newspaper cartoonists went on to successful careers in Europe, the US and elsewhere. One of them, David Low, produced outstanding work in British daily papers for several decades from the 1930s. Low claimed that New Zealand’s two most important exports were mutton and cartoonists.

Despite the growing influence of radio, newspapers remained the dominant mass medium and were carefully read and vigorously discussed by the entire adult population. Their international sections were greatly enlarged and improved by contributions from press agencies which supplied news from around the world.

Malcolm Ross

Competition between papers contributed to the rise of the professional New Zealand journalist, and often resulted in excellent news-gathering. Some journalists earned national and even international reputations. Malcolm Ross’s career began on the Otago Daily Times, and in 1897 he became the Wellington-based parliamentary correspondent for that paper and the Christchurch Press. Ross also reported on New Zealand for major overseas papers. In 1915 he was sent to Gallipoli as a war correspondent (although his dispatches were heavily censored).

The versatile reporter

Typically, New Zealand reporters ‘had to turn their hands to anything and everything … It was expected of the reporter that he should with equal readiness describe a cattle show and discuss a theatrical first night, that he should attend a meeting of the Presbytery in the morning, express a learned judgment about a football match in the afternoon and report a meeting of the city council in the evening.’1

Gender issues

Pioneering woman journalist Robin Hyde joined the staff of Wellington’s Dominion in 1922, aged 17. She later worked for various other papers, inserting controversial and subversive views into otherwise innocuous columns. In 1936 she wrote that ‘there are only two things wrong with the women journalists in this country ... One is that in nine cases out of ten, they are underpaid … and the other is that they aren’t given enough scope. There is still the horrid delusion that the social column is the only department women like to read, or are competent to write.’2

Women journalists

A steadily increasing number of New Zealand journalists were women, but until the First World War they were mostly confined to covering ‘women’s issues’ such as fashion, food and social gossip. Jessie Mackay began writing a fortnightly column for the Otago Witness in 1898 and in 1906 was appointed ‘lady editor’ of the Canterbury Times. By the 1920s she was permitted to write on issues such as women’s suffrage and Irish nationalism, but faced persistent prejudice against serious journalism by women. ‘I had to take on a double sort of life,’ she wrote, ‘half woman’s, half man’s work. It is hard for even the most sympathetic man to understand how hard it is for a woman to obtain the conditions a man writer commands as a matter of course.’3

Literature in newspapers

By publishing poems, stories and essays, and providing steady employment to literary figures, the New Zealand press made important services to literature. Thomas Bracken, author of the lyrics for the national anthem ‘God defend New Zealand’, founded a weekly in 1875 and published the leading writers of his day, aiming ‘to foster a national spirit in New Zealand and to encourage colonial literature’.4 The British novelist Samuel Butler supplied freelance contributions to the Christchurch Press. Historians such as William Pember Reeves and Thomas Lindsay Buick developed their writing skills as newspapermen. Later, the poet Allen Curnow worked as a night subeditor on the Christchurch Press, and for 50 years contributed satirical poems under the name ‘Whim Wham’.

From left to right

English-born journalist William Lane edited labour-movement papers in Queensland and advocated anarchist ideals. In 1893 he led a group of supporters to Paraguay to form a utopian colony, which failed to survive. Lane then migrated to New Zealand and became a leader-writer for Auckland’s New Zealand Herald in 1900, and its editor in 1913. His political views, by then extremely conservative, ultrapatriotic and racist, were expressed in an influential column under the pen-name ‘Tohunga’.

Labour-movement papers

Many newspapers were started to advance the political views of their owners and editors. Papers representing conservative and business interests usually attracted the most financial backing and outlasted their competitors. A rare exception among long-lived New Zealand newspapers was the Grey River Argus, published in Greymouth from 1866 to 1966. From 1918 it openly supported the labour movement and carried the phrase ‘New Zealand’s labor daily’ on the front page. In 1919 some West Coast trade unions bought a share in the paper. From 1911 to 1924 the labour movement also had a weekly paper, the Maoriland Worker, whose editors included Harry Holland, later the leader of the Labour Party. Another lively weekly, the New Zealand Truth, supported radical politics when it was launched in 1905 but grew much more conservative from the 1920s. Truth ceased publication in 2013.

Religious papers

In the 20th century New Zealanders were also able to read some well-produced religious newspapers, such as the Catholic weeklies Tablet (1873–1996) and Zealandia (1934–89).

  1. Quoted in Allison Oosterman, ‘Malcolm Ross: from the peaks to the trenches.’ PhD thesis, AUT University, 2008, p. 64. Back
  2. Quoted in Gillian Boddy and Jacqueline Matthews, eds., Disputed ground: Robin Hyde, journalist. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1991, p. 189. Back
  3. Quoted in Heather Roberts, ‘Jessie Mackay.’ Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, (last accessed 28 November 2013). Back
  4. Quoted in Guy H. Scholefield, Newspapers in New Zealand. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1958, p. 181. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Newspapers - The heyday of newspapers, 1900–1939', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 22 Oct 2014