Australia’s ‘grandmother’ of newsmedia has quite something to celebrate

Apr 20, 2021 at 12:17 pm by admin

Not Sydney’s first newspaper but now its – and Australia’s – oldest, the Sydney Morning Herald turned 190 this week.

Particularly, the paper celebrates “190 years of print”… but try finding out much of how that was first achieved in a youthful but still growing colony. Few seem to know much about the paper’s production history a century ago, let alone almost two.

Its story dates to April 18, 1831, by which time the rival Sydney Gazette – established by government printer and former convict George Howe – had been published for 28 years, albeit not continuously, and had blossomed to a tri-weekly.

In their ‘Short History, 200 years of Sydney newspapers’ – published for the Gazette’s bicentenary – Victor Isaacs and former GXpress columnist Rod Kirkpatrick give credit to recent immigrants Alfred Stephens, Frederick Stokes and William McGarvie for the foundation of the Sydney Herald, which was to become a daily in 1840. It was the city’s dominant voice when its name was changed to the Sydney Morning Herald in 1842, a year after John Fairfax – a publisher from the English Midlands who had apparently boarded a ship to New South Wales after going bust over a libel suit – bought the paper with Charles Kemp.

Fairfax bought out Kemp in 1853, and his family was to own the paper for 137 years, and despite the turmoil of successive decades – famously Warwick Fairfax “tried to reprivatise” the company, borrowing $1.8 billion shortly before the 1987 sharemarket crash – many staff still identify with the former Fairfax Media and continue to use their email addresses although it has belonged to broadcaster Nine Entertainment since 2018.

A peek behind the Herald’s flexible paywall on the occasion of its 190th birthday delivers pictures of its headquarters buildings on a block at the corner of Hunter, Pitt and O’Connell Streets in the 1920s and prior to its 1955 move to Broadway, and more are promised.

Its first press, a hand-operated Columbian would not have sustained it for long, with the country’s first steam-powered press installed in 1853. Isaacs and Kirkpatrick note the revolution that would have taken place when Linotype machines – which they describe as “like giant typewriters” – cast lines of new type (as the name suggests) rather than single letters, removing the need to hand-set each line from loose type which later had to be laboriously redistributed into type cases. The rival Daily Telegraph had been the first in Australia with the typesetting technology in 1894, the Herald not catching up until 1903, but adding photo-engraving in 1908.

Reel-fed printing would also have been introduced by then, but details are scarce. Recent memory has seen the switch to web-offset printing with early phototypesetting in the 1970s – a first production computer in 1967 – and the 1990s installation at suburban Chullora of manroland colour presses and a buffered Müller Martini mailroom. All the equipment was scrapped after production was switched in 2014 to the former Rural Press North Richmond plant, which had been upgraded with equipment from the previously-closed Age plant in Melbourne, and the two city sites sold for $63 million.

While the North Richmond presses – recently cut off during floods of the NSW town – still exist as part of what is now Australian Community Media, both the Sydney Morning Herald and stablemates The Age and the Australian Financial Review, are printed by rival publisher News Corp Australia. Nine owns no printing equipment of its own, director of print mastheads Michael Stevens telling a virtual conference in India last September that the “truly variable cost base” was key to arresting terminal decline.

The online story begins with the birth of the website in April 1995; the paper recalls artists’ problems working from a former boatshed in Glebe Point Road, where power blackouts were frequent and “pigeons insisted on pooping on our computers”

All of this may be a long way from the so-called “glory days” of perhaps a quarter-of-a-century before, when classified "rivers of gold" drove "very, very, very" profitable 200-page broadsheets, but so far it is keeping the much-anticipated demise of printed Sydney Morning Herald editions at bay.

And “not only profitable, but… delivering most of the revenue," Stevens reported last year. Perhaps a happy birthday after all, ‘Grannie’.

Peter Coleman

Pictured: The Herald’s 1856 building at the corner of Pitt and Hunter Streets, demolished in the 1920s to make way for larger premises; (above) the first front page and some of how the paper covered its anniversary this week, including the Columbian press, scenes outside O’Connell Street, and paper paste-up at the Broadway offices in 1984; (below) the 1831 first edition, and this week’s celebratory wraparound


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