(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., November 15.)
It’s odd, when the print media are fighting for survival, to read of a time in our history when people couldn’t get enough of newspapers.
I’ve been reading about such a time in Ian F Grant’s new book Lasting Impressions: The story of New Zealand’s newspapers 1840-1920. Among other things, it reveals that New Zealand once had more newspapers per head of population than any other country in the world.
In colonial New Zealand, newspapers were often among the first businesses to be established as new towns arose from the wilderness. Opportunist publishers known as “rag planters” would move around the country, launching newspapers in embryonic communities then moving on when better prospects beckoned elsewhere.
Early colonists, Grant writes, regarded information and debate in newspapers as a crucial component in working towards a self-governing, independent society. Newspapers were the glue that held communities together and gave them a sense of identity.
The early New Plymouth settler Charles Hursthouse expressed it in plaintive terms. “Nothing has tended to retard the progress of the settlement more than the absence of a newspaper,” he lamented in 1848.
Before I go any further, a disclosure. Ian Grant was one of my employers when I worked at the National Business Review in the mid-1970s and we see quite a bit of each other in Masterton, where he and his wife Diane run a small but frenetically busy book publishing company.
I had a sneak preview of two chapters in his book and was astonished at the depth and detail of the research. Grant is the first to admit that his job was made a lot easier by Papers Past, the National Library’s digital archive of old newspapers, but it was still a prodigious undertaking.
His interest in the newspaper business isn’t purely academic. A former editor of the Victoria University student paper Salient, he was one of a group of risk-taking young entrepreneurs who took over the floundering National Business Review in its early days and turned it into a success story.
He later founded the New Zealand Cartoon Archive, which grew out of his 1980 book The Unauthorised Version: A Cartoon History of New Zealand.
Grant’s background was in advertising and it shows in his book, in which he repeatedly emphasises the importance of the advertising dollar in sustaining the newspaper business. That much has never changed.
He has little patience for academic theorists who insist on ascribing political motives to the men who laid the foundations of the New Zealand newspaper industry.
Several 19th century newspapermen did enter politics – including the premiers John Ballance and Julius Vogel – but the motivation for most proprietors and editors was to make money, and the papers that survived tended to have commercial rather than political objectives.
The one you’re reading right now was an exception. The Dominion was founded by wealthy farmers, merchants and professional men who opposed the policies of Richard Seddon’s Liberal Party government. But the paper it merged with in 2002, the Evening Post, was more in the standard mould, having been established and owned for more than a century by a family that had no political agenda.
Lasting Impressions confirms – not that confirmation is needed – that newspapers thrived partly because human beings are social creatures with a natural interest in the affairs of others.
That hasn’t changed either, except that curiosity about the lives of others has mutated into a grotesque form of voyeurism that finds an outlet in social (or should that be anti-social?) media, where it’s reciprocated by people’s willingness to lay bare the most intimate details of their lives.
A lot else has changed too, and not necessarily for the better. The advent of the Internet has done untold damage to the traditional media.
Many people welcome this because it has democratised access to information. Editors in newsrooms are no longer the gatekeepers.
But it has come at a cost. One sad consequence is that the traditional “broad church” newspaper, which served as unifying force of civil society by providing readers with a smorgasbord of impartial news and information and also, crucially, by exposing them to a diverse range of opinions, is now threatened with extinction.
In its place we have an increasingly toxic and polarised cyberspace where people go to have their ideological prejudices reinforced. Even the mainstream media often seem less concerned with providing balanced news than with offering a platform to advocacy groups intent on highlighting all the shameful ways in which our society is supposedly failing disadvantaged minorities.
Ian Grant has now turned his attention to the history of New Zealand newspapers since 1920, an assignment made unusually challenging by the very fluid state of the industry. Let’s hope Volume II doesn’t end up as an obituary.