Monday, March 18, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“EXTRA! EXTRA! – How People Made the News” by David Hastings (Auckland University Press, $NZ45)

            Back in the 1950s, in one of his facetious late collections, A.R.D.Fairburn wrote a parody of Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning and the Moon at Night”. It went:  

Got our mansion, got our yacht
Got it all by selling this rot
In the Herald in the morning and the Star at night.”

And so on for four or five equally subtle verses.

Any Aucklander could latch onto it at once. For a bit over a century, news in Auckland meant the New Zealand Herald in the morning and the Auckland Star in the evening. The Herald was (and still is) more likely to be on the right in politics. The mildly populist Star was a teensy bit more to the left; not wildly so. But the onset of other news media (i.e. television) meant, internationally, the decline of evening newspapers, and the Star died over twenty years ago, leaving behind its ghost in the form of the weekly Sunday Star-Times. The Herald has Auckland’s daily newspaper market to itself.

For an Aucklander of my generation, the Herald and the Star were such recognisable institutions that it’s hard to realize there were once other Auckland daily newspapers before either of them existed.

A journalist who has trained as an historian may seem the ideal person to write a history of those earlier newspapers and of the rise of the Herald and the Star. David Hastings worked for years at the New Zealand Herald in various editorial capacities, and was then editor of the Weekend Herald. He also earned a masters degree in history and has already published a book about nineteenth century migrant ships to New Zealand.

In Extra! Extra!, Hastings tells the story of Auckland’s nineteenth century newspapers, their rivalries and fights for dominance in a small market. Many of the stories he digs out are vivid. He highlights the leading personalities among proprietors, editors and other journalists. He has an insider’s eye for the tricks of the journalist’s trade (such as pseudonymous “letters-to-the-editor” written by employees of the newspaper Pg.42). He is also aware of the market which newspapers addressed, and he keeps us informed of circulation figures and public reaction to individual newspapers. But Hastings is also an advocate for newspapers, and there are times when his tone is a little defensive – even inclined to some special pleading.

As Hastings notes, there were literally dozens of attempts to establish a weekly or daily newspaper in Auckland in the mid-19th century. Most of the results were purely ephemeral – newspapers that survived a few years or months only. Some such newspapers have lived on as historical footnotes – like the Examiner, which lasted for four years (1856-60) under the editorship of the bellicose and bigoted freethinker Charles Southwell.

Once you discount the ephemera, however, you find that the chief contest in Auckland, from the 1840s to the 1860s, was between two rival morning papers, the New Zealander and the Southern Cross. The New Zealander was originally a fierce opponent of Governor George Grey’s policies regarding the purchase of Maori land, but it was gradually drawn into Grey’s orbit. The Southern Cross, founded slightly later and the first Auckland paper to become a daily, was more likely to be critical of Grey. But once the Waikato war was on, both papers tended to report it in terms of the governor doing the right thing in spreading Pakeha civilization and ‘opening up’ land. The rivalry between the papers took the form of each trying to scoop the other over news from the war zone. Hastings tells the story of a Southern Cross reporter who rode all night to get news of the fall of Meremere to his editor. He also tells of soldiers who threatened to beat up a reporter who wrote what they saw as a slighting story about their performance in battle.

Gradually the Southern Cross overtook its older rival. After the New Zealand Herald was founded in 1863, tiny colonial Auckland was for three years served by three morning newspapers. The New Zealander ceased to exist when its offices burned down in 1866, and for a time the Southern Cross was Auckland’s major newspaper with the Herald as its junior rival. But, as Hastings chronicles, the finances of the Southern Cross were a mess, and the paper was not helped by the involvement of Julius Vogel, fresh from his disagreements with the Otago Daily Times. Hastings interprets Vogel as a “man of the past” who still saw newspapers as a means of promoting political causes rather than latching on to the need to provide news first. Later, in 1873, there was the notorious “Kaskowiski” hoax in which a new editor at the Southern Cross tried to boost circulation, and provide some controversy over national defence, by making up a tale of Russian invasion. The Southern Cross came to seem lightweight. In 1877, it ceased to exist when it merged with the Herald, and Auckland now had just one morning newspaper.

Meanwhile the Evening Star (as it was originally known) had come on the scene by about 1870, and frightened both the morning newspapers by frequently scooping them and by rapidly gaining a wider circulation than either of them. Once the Southern Cross vanished, Auckland had the duopoly that would last for over a century, despite the occasional attempt to set up a third newspaper. The Star managed to keep up a higher circulation than the Herald for many years after the two of them were firmly established.

As Hastings’ frequent references to circulation show, it was a very small market that these early newspapers served. Early issues of the New Zealander and the Southern Cross were bought by hundreds, rather than thousands, of people. It was only by the 1880s, when the Star’s daily sales topped 10,000, that there had developed something like what would be regarded in modern terms as a mass readership. Despite the Lilliputian scale, this is a story of larger-then-life journalists like Henry Brett, David Burn, Robert Creighton and the extraordinary Thomas Leys who edited the Star for 45 years.

It is also, inevitably, a story of technology. In the pre-cable age, being able to print foreign news before some rival newspaper meant literally rushing out to ships as they came into harbour and trying to grab all recent overseas newspapers, to reprint their news. And if there was a dry spell when no foreign news was forthcoming from this source, then “when faced with a famine, editors had no choice but to go back over old papers, winnowing them for something they missed in the first pass.” (Pg.59)

This changed when the first cable between New Zealand and Australia was laid in 1872.

Other changes in technology included linotype and the rotary press. Hastings suggests that the cost of this new technology was something that cemented the dominance of the Herald and the Star, as it was now prohibitively expensive to set a new newspaper up.

A sort of background noise to this history is the issue of attitudes that editors and journalists adopted towards Maori and Pakeha land hunger. Another is the matter of social class and politics. One of Hastings’ major themes is the way newspapers moved away from being political pamphlets and moved into serving the general interests of the public with wide news coverage and a variety of articles. Yet he does note the strong political biases of publications. As he reports in Chapter 12 (“The Spirit of the Age”), even by the 1890s the Herald was being referred to as “Granny” for its support of conservative politicians and policies, whereas the Star was more likely to speak up for trade unionists and the early Liberal ministry. Similarly (Chapter 13) the Star was an ardent supporter of women’s suffrage whereas the Herald more-or-less opposed it.

This history fades out on the situation by about 1900, including a consideration of libel laws and the way newspapers were sometimes subjected to harassment by aggrieved people who had barrows to push.

One of Hastings’ most constant themes is that newspapers are shaped by the communities they serve, rather than the other way around. He rejects any Gramscian notions of newspapers as expressions of hegemony. As he puts it in his introduction:

Because of the imperative to serve reader interests, newspapers were shaped by their communities and were constantly having to adjust as social interests and standards changed. The point is of crucial importance to understanding the history of Auckland’s press because so much criticism and analysis – both formal and informal – sees influence working the other way round. Newspapers were supposedly instruments of social control devised by the ruling elite for the dual purpose of making money and exercising power through their influence on public opinion. So rather than being shaped, they were the ones who did the shaping. Largely because of the uncritical acceptance of ideas like these, historians have tended to underestimate the value of newspapers as historical documents which, for all their shortcomings, can tell us much about the societies from which they emerged and with which they were intimately connected.” (Pg.3)

This note is sounded often throughout Extra! Extra! and is, I believe, the author at his most defensive. What is influenced also has influence over; and newspapers, like any other mass medium, are as much the shapers and makers of attitudes as they are the reflectors of them.

Not that the ideological viewpoint mars this good, brisk and well-illustrated piece of accessible history.

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