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An overview of Australian newspaper companies 1860-1920



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Corporations and collectives: an overview of
Australian newspaper companies 1860-1920
Denis Cryle
The intention of this article is to provide an Australia-wide overview of the processes of capitalisation and company formation which overtook the newspaper press from the second half of the nineteenth-century. This analysis constitutes the preliminary phase of a larger media history which needs to be written about the corporate successes and failures of the industry
Australia-wide. While the main focus of the paper remains the popular press, it will be argued that an understanding of newspaper company history sheds light on a multiplicity of
Australian media traditions not only popular papers but also on their more reputable city counterparts; not only on regional media, where company formation if uneven, was surprisingly rapid and significant, but equally as a valuable marker of labour and radical aspirations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the latter constituting an alternative tradition or narrative to the relentless takeovers and mergers of the corporate tradition.
W
hile this brief and selective overview, focusing on the lower end of the newspaper market, cannot do full justice to the voluminous source material consulted, it does provide a useful comparative perspective across the colonies. For the purposes of the survey, approximately 150 archival files were consulted. The sheer quantity of these records, comprising mostly shareholding lists and registration documents, points to a significant and possibly systematic neglect in Australian media history. Systematic in so far as
Australian Studies in Journalism 8: 1999, pp.83-95


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Australian Studies in Journalism their existence appears to challenge accepted versions of the past —
most notably those of liberal individualism, be it that of the enterprising proprietor or of the journalist-editor who cherished independence and editorial control. That newspaper companies were significant as early as the 1860s is demonstrable even in Queensland, the so-called haven of the small press proprietor, where both metropolitan dailies including the forerunner of the Courier-Mail were established as companies within a decade of separation from New South Wales.
The unhappy fortunes of these companies, documented in my Press in
Colonial Queensland (Cryle 1989), suggest that shareholders and directors,
no matter how fiercely independent, were nevertheless constrained in these new company operations and arrangements. Detailed Queensland research (Kirkpatrick 1984; Manion 1982: 107-174) provides strong evidence of regional company formation in the nineteenth-century.
Of the 35 Queensland companies included in this survey, 20 were regional enterprises. Elsewhere in Victoria and in Western Australia,
the ratio of regional to metropolitan companies was about even (1:1)
unlike New South Wales, and South Australia which remained more centralised. The economics of regional company formation in the former colonies during the 1880s and 1890s are bound up with the new climate of mining investment, some of which also precipitated metropolitan newspaper company formation. Whatever the outcome of this activity, there is a need to understand the broad economic forces which brought about the proliferation of media companies at regional and national levels.
If company formation and organisation brought constraints as well as opportunities, it complicated the work of editors who now had to negotiate with their boards of management. That journalists were also beginning to see their papers as an investment is confirmed by the regularity with which they appear in the shareholding lists of newspaper enterprises. Any understanding of company ownership and investment helps to fill a significant gap in recent accounts by
Julianne Schultz (1998), Jenny Craik (1995) and others about the historic tensions between the media as public forum on one hand, and as a private investment in the other. Although they were rarely appointed as company directors, journalists were lured to particular papers by


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the offer of shares and could even be disciplined by the threat of having shares withdrawn. At the same time, journalists and newspaper workers used company structures to reassert their independence through the formation of cooperatives in an effort to improve their conditions or to advance political causes. The history of company ownership, it is argued for the period to 1930, concerns not only the individual urge to become a shareholder but also the struggle of collectives and union organisations Australia-wide. To this extent,
studying newspaper company history involves more than endorsing dominant corporate traditions; it permits a recognition of other voices
— labour, ethnic and radical — which organised their limited resources against the prevailing social and economic system.
The Telegraph companies and metropolitan investment
An overview of the scale and pattern of nineteenth-century company development can be gleaned by examining Australian enterprises founded in the wake of the London Telegraph in 1855. The success story of the period, surpassing the Times within five years
(Riffenburgh 1993: 45) the Telegraph brand name was the signal not only for a change in the style of journalism but an attractive model for new-found commercialism. Because of its origin, essentially British and imperial, the company traditions associated with the Telegraph have been neglected in Australian media history Moreover they do not sit easily with traditions of individualism and liberalism which dominate our press historiography. While the transplantation of the Telegraph model was relatively protracted, it did produce a number of stable namesakes, the Sydney and Brisbane companies being the most enduring. One local complication was that colonial imitators had to compete with their established London mentor. Moreover, colonial success depended on specific local conditions before metropolitan investment in popular penny papers became attractive.
The Telegraph companies across the colonies though never syndicated or connected from a business viewpoint, provide a useful comparative basis for this Australia-wide company survey The earliest


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Australian Studies in Journalism
Telegraph titles in the Australian colonies — the 3d Tasmanian Telegraph
(1858-59), the Albury Telegraph (1858) and Sinnett’s 2d Adelaide publication (1862) were established too early to benefit from new company legislation which provided city investors with limited liability on their paid-up capital. However, by 1866, Thomas Elder and other
Adelaide investors had formed a Daily Telegraph and Weekly Mail
Newspaper Company with registered capital of £3000 (14 Feb., 1866,
SA Archives GRS 513/2 20/66). Brisbane and Melbourne Telegraph companies, established at the same period, were also daily enterprises requiring substantial capital support. Both registered as Joint Stock companies, the Brisbane company with £5000, the Melbourne concern with nominal capital of £10,000 (7 Nov., 1872, QSA A/21310 and 4
Feb, 1869, VPRS 932/143). However, because of the limited liability provisions, the working capital of these companies remained considerably lower at around £2000. Calls on shares initially were much lower (20 percent) than the full amount, while the total shares available were not always taken up, in part because the companies were formed at a time when the gold and mining economy had slowed and investors were relatively cautious. Most of the initial investment went towards purchasing the plant and office equipment. Within five years of operation, the Melbourne paper had established itself with assets of £6092 and liabilities of £3162.
In comparison with their London namesake, the first wave of
Telegraph companies in Australia enjoyed modest success and remained commercially conservative. They continued to rely on the subscription system as their main method of selling and did not depart significantly from their morning competitors in matters of typography and layout.
In the case of the Brisbane and Melbourne companies, there were nevertheless significant differences in the shareholding patterns and in the social composition of investors. While the Brisbane shares were as low as £1 each, Melbourne Telegraph shares were prohibitive at £500
each. Consequently, the Brisbane company began with a large number of small investors, predominantly tradespeople, and exhibited a higher shareholder turnover than the Melbourne company which was the preserve of a stable and privileged group, including several
“gentlemen”, an accountant, journalist Harold Willoughby and Charles


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Frederick Somarton as manager-printer. Yet, within five years of existence, the differences between the two companies diminished as a small core of shareholders secured control over the Brisbane enterprise.
After 10 years of operation, ownership had passed to a trio of conservative Brisbane professionals with Upper House connections,
rather than Lower House or liberal and Courier sympathies. In
Queensland, as in Victoria and South Australia, company formation provided social and political conservatives with an acceptable degree of anonymity and covert influence over metropolitan public opinion.
If company and commercial activity remained unspectacular in the 1860s and 1870s, the l880s brought a second wave of investment,
which signalled the prosperity of the Sydney Daily Telegraph in particular.
As the city’s first penny daily the Telegraph entered into direct competition with the Herald by promising to place “reliable morning news” in the hand of tram and train travellers (Annual Report, Feb. 1885 ML).
Elsewhere, including Brisbane, most Telegraph companies were evening publications. In spite of this, the Sydney Telegraph company performed best, recording a net profit of £5597 in 1889, and throughout the depressed nineties, paid dividends of 12.5 percent in 1892 (Annual
Reports 1890-1893). In common with the first Melbourne company,
the Sydney Telegraph included a journalist as shareholder. Walter Wynne of King Street took out a £1000 shareholding, presumably in his own enterprise. In such cases, journalists were no longer self-employed individuals but had become part of an exclusive and small group of investors. However they were not usually appointed as company directors. In one instance, the new Melbourne Telegraph company,
established in 1884 with 100 £500 shares, journalist-shareholder James
McKinley was appointed company manager (30 Aug. 1883 VPRS
932/785) along the lines of Charles Hardie Buzacott in the Brisbane
Courier company. Unlike the Sydney Telegraph, a Melbourne company which depended on local merchants foundered during the 1890s depression and the Herald emerged as the main popular competitor of the Argus and the Age. A measure of the respectability of newspaper investment by 1890 was the involvement of clergy like William Henry
Fitchett and F.W. Brentnall in the Melbourne and Brisbane companies respectively; both were influential and outspoken conservatives in their communities. Increasingly, as they grew in size and complexity,


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Australian Studies in Journalism newspaper companies reflected less and less the lower middle class interests which constituted their readership.
For metropolitan companies, it was not until the early years of the twentieth-century that profits became lucrative. The Sydney Daily
Telegraph, leading the field, recorded a rise from £11,000 in 1896 to as much as £44,000 profit within 10 years (Annual Reports, 1897-1907).
While telegraphic news was a growing necessity and expense — the
Sydney paper prided itself on sending the first report of the German annexation of New Guinea to Europe — its heaviest running costs remained machinery and paper, the latter a scarce and expensive resource even before World War One. In comparison with Sydney,
sister companies elsewhere remained modest. The Daily Telegraph circulating north from Perth postwar, was a much more modest concern (£2000) with a very small profit margin (£30). (1922 WA.
Archives AN913/6 S41/18). While the Launceston Daily Telegraph established in the mid-1880s was more prosperous, its shareholdings remained concentrated in the hands of two or three investors, most notably the family of printer William Whittaker (ISA 5C323 no. 385).
Although other Telegraph companies diversified considerably postwar,
they never approached the scale of the Sydney Telegraph which attracted 100-150 shareholders in all capital cities as well as New
Zealand and England. Edited by Henry Gullett MLC, the Sydney company alone could claim a commercial success in the southern hemisphere comparable with its great London namesak o ith the notable exception of the Sydney daily, the Telegraph companies operated from a pre-eminently local capital base and without the pretensions of their British counterpart. As such, they may be seen as constituting an Australian media and corporate tradition, less concerned with imperialising at home and abroad than with colonial
(state) politics and society. Although they embraced speed and technology in their title, they lacked the resources to outshine their metropolitan competitors in the field of telegraphic reports or indeed of editorialising. They did however change the nature of metropolitan journalism by providing a miscellany of reading material, much of it from Britain, without engaging in the publicity stunts or excesses of their British and American commercial press. In so far as they


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contributed to Australian media traditions, such companies were among the first to achieve a lower middle class following without striving to educate or politicise their new readers.
Cooperative and labour newspaper companies
In most companies discussed thus far, printers and journalists appear as individual shareholders on lists dominated by merchants and representatives of the urban middle class. In a number of specific instances, however, investment by newspaper workers was more concerted, constituting a collective with industrial and political objectives.
One such case was the Evening Mail of 1869, owned by 10 Ballarat compositors (3 April, 1869, VPRS 932/48), while a later enterprise the Newcastle Cooperative Newspaper Company was begun by local compositors and journalists (NSW AO 3/5733 1707). Although investment was modest (£4-5000), these were viable concerns in regional centres where typographical societies were active from the mid nineteenth-century and where compositors comprised the largest single category of newspaper worker. If as Hagan (1966: 131-132)
states, compositors continued to exercise the prerogative of industrial action on metropolitan papers including the Telegraph companies, they were sufficiently well remunerated elsewhere to pool their financial resources and form their own companies. One likely objective of the
Ballarat enterprise was to maintain high wage levels after the general economic downturn which followed the gold rushes. Of the £837
profit it recorded in 1869 (l9 July), the Evening Mail company dispensed
£534 in wages, presumably to its shareholders-employees. In this instance, the newspaper company was the upshot of collective and labour action. Hagan (1966: 41-42), in his study of printing unions,
confirms the tenacity of the Ballarat Typographical Society at this time and its ambitious attempts to organise a Victorian Typographical Union as early as the 1860s.
From its inception, company legislation was viewed by organising workers and unions as an opportunity for collective empowerment rather than simply as a source of individual profit. To this extent company history is bound up with a second media tradition based


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Australian Studies in Journalism upon labour or “the business of labour” as much as on capital alone.
In South Australia, as early as 1878, the Labour Advocate registered as a newspaper company (S.A. Archives GRS 513/3. 14/77). In
Queensland, a decade later, the Boomerang also operated as a company
(21 June, 1889, QSA A/18940 186/5). As the l890s grew more turbulent, a People’s Newspaper group was organised by Albert
Hinchciffe in Central Queensland to support the cause of labour and the striking shearers. Unlike the early cooperative companies at Ballarat and Newcastle, its membership was drawn predominantly from the working classes of Rockhampton, Mount Morgan and Peak Downs
— labourers, shearers and miners, whose wages and capital were more limited than compositors or journalists. After two years, the People’s
Newspaper had 466 shareholders on its list, most of whom purchased
2-5 five shilling shares, but if a newspaper ever appeared, no files appear to have survived (1894 QSA Company Register A/21336).
The cycle of depression and militancy which spawned such companies differed from more orthodox investment patterns, notably the buoyant
1880s when confidence was high and capital more readily available.
Consequently, one of the features of the labour companies, apart from their working class involvement, was their instability. While regional newspaper companies continued for a decade or more and the Telegraph companies for longer, the time-span of the cooperative and labour companies tended to be much shorter, ranging between five and one or two years only. Importantly, too, as Toohill notes
(1993: 69), moves towards industrial unionism had the potential to erode the craft ethos which inspired the early cooperatives.
A strategic consideration for union and labour organisations when establishing joint stock companies under adverse conditions was to remain attractive to advertisers and middle-class investors. Arguably,
these commercial considerations influenced the short-lived People’s
Newspaper Publishing Company founded in Perth in 1891 on a platform of political and constitutional reform. Rather than embracing class-based and industrial labour policies, the Perth company in question espoused “the advancement of freedom of opinion and true liberalism” (1891 WA. Archives AN193/6 2003’s. A.decade later the
Melbourne People’s Publishing Company, in its manifesto, attacked


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the Argus and the Age for opposing reform, proclaiming as its central objective, the establishment of “a truly liberal Democratic Penny
Newspaper to aid Australian Democratic aspirations” (Prospectus 14
Sept, 1903: 2 VPRS 932/3781). The Adelaide Daily Herald too promoted itself as “the best medium to reach the working and middle classes of the community” (24 Oct, 1917, MSS, Mortlock Library).
The moderate politics of the Melbourne company, a cooperative experiment, were dictated as much by a craft-union outlook as by would-be investors. Under this arrangement, the 50 printers and journalists who registered the company were paid from the proceeds of sales, estimated at 10,000 for 4d a copy, while subscribed capital in
£1 shares was used to pay the costs of the printing plant and production
(Prospectus, 14 Sept. 1903: 1). After four years of operation, £100
had been raised in shares with liability on shares amounting to £185.
Even after the company was wound up by petition, the reluctance of shareholders to pay the minimum investment of 5/- per share delayed its termination.
While constrained to weigh their democratic aspirations against the need for middle-class investment, cooperative and labour companies undertook specific measures to prevent what they mistrusted in their commercial rivals — namely, a tendency towards oligopoly in the hands of a few wealthy shareholders. Consequently, there were calls for restrictions to be placed on the maximum number of shares than any one investor could purchase. The People’s Daily in Melbourne refused to pay its directors special commissions or premiums and limited its shareholders to one vote, irrespective of the number of shares they held. Wary of individual gain which it denounced as “the root curse of honest journalism” (Prospectus: 2), the same company sought to attract a large number of shareholders rather than a few wealthy participants. An additional feature of these companies by the twentieth-century was the presence of women as shareholders. Prior to this, women appear exceptionally with nominal holdings as wives of directors or as family members. In the newer labour companies,
however, women, despite reduced purchasing power were encouraged to participate as union members, although there were no instances of women holding directorships. On the People’s Daily lists, women


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Australian Studies in Journalism represented approximately one in 10 of the shareholders. While a pattern of family involvement was still evident, women were also investing on an individual basis.
The labour companies of the early twentieth-century were as ambitious as they were risky This is especially true of the daily labour papers which appeared in most Australian capital cities before the first World War. A British estimate of the capital required for a daily press operation was as much as £70,000 yet the Daily Herald, when founded in Adelaide in 1910, struggled to attract one-quarter of this amount (2 May, 1913, MSS, Mortlock Library). The detailed records of the Adelaide Herald confirm that it faced a constant struggle to remain solvent in a market where its competitors, the Register and
Advertiser, were well established, wages were high and paper costs rising Nevertheless at the outbreak of war, the company achieved an annual turnover of £18,000 with advertising revenue consistently exceeding that for sales (Statement of Expenditure to 30 Sept. 1914).
The other significant source of income for labour papers was job printing from the unions. On the expenditure side, wages swallowed advertising income, while cables and telegrams accounted for the printing and jobbing revenue. As the war continued and industrial unrest grew, sales of the Herald remained static but shareholder loyalty provided some relief. Under a system of monthly instalments, unpaid capital on shares fell to 15 percent and working capital reached £20,000
by March 1917. On the business side, the company’s achievement lay in resuscitating its advertising revenue after a boycott in 1916. However the high wages of the advertising agents it hired (twice that of an editor) prevented it from pursuing this approach more aggressively in the long term.
As early as 1912 when the Daily Herald launched an appeal to shareholders to double their holdings, an initiative was launched to disseminate the publication all over Australia by advocating supporters buy six copies of the Christmas edition for personal distribution
(Christmas number and Order form, 1912). Subsequently, changes in style and format including the insertion of a women’s page proved more effective. George Burgogne, the new editor responsible for these changes, had voiced his immediate concern to the Directors that


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the Herald was “preaching to the already converted” and printing
“nothing but politics and dull trade union reports” (Bulletin 27 Oct,
1954). Unlike the cooperative associations and Typographical Unions,
the People’s Printing and Publishing Companies were less influenced by industry workers or journalists. Burgogne was overruled on business matters, most importantly on the critical decision to enter the morning market in competition with two established dailies. In retrospect, the
Board’s determination to proceed against the advice of staff was seen as madness since there existed “virtually a clear field for an evening paper”. Such was the lot of many editors and journalists working under company control Reviewing the Herald venture as the first metropolitan labour daily in Australia, Burgogne attributed its failure to a combination of undercapitalisation and managerial error by
“certain ambitious persons” who “would have their way”. At the same time, there were significant journalistic achievements. Among these, staff listed the paper’s assistance to the party during the successful
1920 election campaign. Despite the weight of its morning opposition,
the Daily Herald also broke stories ahead of its rivals — the death of
Edward VII, the Jeffries-Johnson fight and a Japanese earthquake, in part due to its association with the independent Pacific Cable.
The economic wisdom of remaining in a weekly market was well demonstrated in the case of a labour contemporary, the Westralian
Worker a Perth company established by parliamentarians and unions in the first decade of the century As a weekly, the Westralian Worker enjoyed significant advantages over its popular rival, Norton’s Truth,
selling at half the price (6/6d) for twice the reading matter (pamphlet,
Battye Library). With confidence at a peak, a daily publication was planned in 1910 and a prospectus issued for 50,000 £1 shares.
Fundamental to the daily publication strategy was the requirement that all unionists be “prepared to take out at least one share each”
(Report to Fremantle Congress, 1 July 1913). By the outbreak of war,
16,000 £1 shares had been taken out, mostly by unionists, but this fell far short of the £57,000 estimated as the requirement for a daily.
Further union support came in the form of job printing contracts as well as the running of bazaars and ‘carnivals’ by the women’s labour organisations. While income from these sources was clearly limited, it


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Australian Studies in Journalism would be simplistic to assume the People’s Printing and Publishing companies existed purely for the sale of their shareholders. A notable feature of their operations which distinguished them from the middle- class or Telegraph companies was their free distribution. In the case of the West Australian People’s company, free delivery to hospitals,
kindred institutions, reading rooms and immigrant boats was estimated to have been as high as 50,000 copies in 1915.
Conclusion
Such were the social and political objectives of these companies that profits may not be the only measure of evaluating their operations.
To turn any kind of profit, usually in the hundreds rather than the thousands of pounds, was deemed acceptable for their purposes. In comparing and contrasting the extensive company records which form the basis of this study, it is interesting that while the files of the Telegraph companies are relatively brief confined to shareholding lists and registration for the most part, the records of individual People’s Printing and Publishing companies in particular are more detailed and voluminous, an indication of their struggle and ingenuity under more difficult conditions. Judged on purely commercial guidelines, newspaper companies in the “business of labour” appear ill-conceived and undercapitalised, as some undoubtedly were by 1920. Yet their collective achievement remain impressive. The Sydney unions, for example, were able to raise £126,000 for the establishment of an evening daily prior to the war. The search for interstate readers and nationally-based investment continued in 1921 with the establishment of Labour Papers Limited in defiance of the historical tradition of local capital investment under company legislation. In conclusion, to study Australian newspaper companies during this period is to engage with neglected traditions, not simply a Whiggish narrative of middle- class metropolitan investment embodied in the Telegraphs but also with an alternative media tradition which sought under different economic circumstances to use the structures of capital and investment markets for collective and reformist ends.


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References
Craik, Bailey, J.J. & A. Moran (eds) (1995), Public Voices Private Interests, Australia‘s
Media Policy, St Leonards. Allen and Unwin, 1995.
Cryle, Denis (1989), The Press in Colonial Queensland: a social and political history
1845-1875, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1989, chs. 5 & 6.
Hagan, J. (1966), Printers and Politics: A History of the Australian Printing Unions
1850-1950, Canberra, Australian National University, 1966.
Kirkpatrick, Rod (1984), Sworn to No Master, Toowoomba, DDIP, 1984, chs. 10,
14.
Mamon, James (1982), Paper Power in North Queensland, Townsville, North
Queensland Newspaper Company Ltd, 1982.
Riffenburg, Beau (1993), The Myth of the Explorer, the Press, Sensationalism and
Geographical Discovery, New York, Oxford University Press, 1993.
Schultz, Julianne (1998), Reviving the Fourth Estate Democracy, Accountability and the Media, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Toohill, David (1993), “Our words are our bonds: a study of Labour newspapers,
Australian Studies in Journalism, 2 : 67-74.
Dr Cryle is an Associate Professor at Central Queensland University where he lectures in mass media and journalism history.

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