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New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s

The New Zealand newspaper press

page 233

The New Zealand newspaper press

We are now in a position to give an overview of the role of the press in the colonial life of the 1880s. A useful (if rather simplified) outline will see the telegraph working towards a New Zealand outlook, the scissors and paste, applied to overseas journals, imparting a strongly global flavour, and the pen (especially in the hands of ‘Our Owns’) giving a vigorous local thrust. The outworking of this interplay between telegraph, scissors and pen can perhaps be best understood in the context of the general fortunes of the world press, and especially against the backdrop of the parallel English developments of which many colonists were aware.

The second half of the 19th century saw the ever accelerating rise of the newspaper press and expansion of its circulation, the result especially of rising living standards, the rapid advance towards universal literacy, cheaper paper and other production costs, telegraphy, and modern transport for distribution. The major technological innovation in all this was the telegraph. Patrick Day has shown that with the coming of the telegraph, and the resultant United Press Association, ‘the New Zealand press by the early 1880s had become a cohesive national organisation’.16 He rightly comments that ‘this process of nationalisation took place well before analogous processes occurred in other aspects of New Zealand life’. Despite putting all parts of the colony and all its newspapers into constant, almost immediate, contact with each other, the telegraph did not immediately seriously undercut either the localising work of the pen or the globalising work of the scissors. For somewhat different reasons than in the colony, the coming of the telegraph was also an ambivalent influence in England. There it came to a scene where the London press was already national in standing and influence, through having long carried the important doings of the centre out to the provinces. But the telegraph also carried this news out to the provinces, where the local penny dailies could now bring out breakfast-time editions long before the London papers could physically arrive. With this advantage to enhance the general factors now favouring all newspapers, the later 19th century became the golden age of much of the provincial press, the period when it successfully pushed back the circulation areas of the London press.17 Reporting on the beginning of this rise, Reynolds Magazine of 2 January 1847 had this to say:

The provincial press has made wonderful advances in ability and energy during the last twenty years. How almost invariably has the pen displaced the scissors—the ink supplanted the paste! Some of the best reporters in the country are engaged on the country press…18

The New Zealand situation was very different. There was no colonial page 234London’ from which the press could claim to speak with a national voice. Vogel's unsuccessful attempt of the 1870s to make the New Zealand Times a national paper showed that.19 Even the New Zealand Times and its weekly, the New Zealand Mail, were to be very busy with the scissors over these years when the English provincial press was putting them aside. Out in the New Zealand provinces it was even more so. By the 1880s all the New Zealand papers, urban and rural, were selecting their main body of New Zealand and overseas news from the press releases of the United Press Association. But the real juice of the New Zealand press was not in the brief, bland summaries that flowed from the telegraph, but in the fuller, personalised offerings of the army of ‘Our Owns’, the gifted contingents of ‘Our Travelling Reporters', and the scissors' reapings from the cream of the world of international journalism. The telegraph certainly kept New Zealand well informed about itself. But from the local pens and the global scissors came not only information but also the greater part of the colour, feeling, imagination and personality of the New Zealand press.

And for many settlers, what the press was valued for above all else was that it recorded and even dramatised their doings in their local settings. It treated their part in the carving of a new rural world out of the wild as a matter of general public significance. Their part of this ongoing colonial drama was counted worthy of being written into the public record. It was surely, above all else, about themselves, and about how effectively news of their hour of crisis was being got out to the wider world, that the blinded defenders of Stratford wanted to hear from the printed word, as read out to them by the Taranaki Herald's ‘Our Special Reporter’ on the afternoon of 7 January 1886:

The worst of the danger was over on Thursday at about noon. When our reporter arrived a few hours later, nearly every other person one met either had cold water bandages on his eyes or else was carrying his handkerchief soaked in water in his hands…. One of the first places I visited was Mr. Curtis' store. Four or five gentlemen were collected there. They had just received the newspaper by the train, but were quite unable to read it. I therefore perched myself on a high stool and read it out as a lecturer would address an audience.20