This article attempts to begin the process of acknowledging the important historical role that suburban newspapers have played in the Australian print media landscape. It canvasses some reasons for this lack of recognition across the media, including the stigma of a 'free' publication. It also identifies the foundations that have shaped the suburban press, and reveals some important, and hitherto unrecognised, collective initiatives that the suburban press undertook to protect their interests. Finally, it raises the prospect that there are significant opportunities for the suburban press to capitalise on the digital era's focus on local news.
Suburban newspapers in Australia are frequently derided as 'local rags', their news values supposedly corrupted by advertising and their appearance in letterboxes an episodic irritant for many households. Yet this arm of the national print landscape reaches more than seven million Australians every week. Perhaps more importantly, the suburban newspapers are based on a rich Australian press precedent of engagement with local issues across a range of small and diverse communities. Those early newspapers had a noble view of their importance, often built on principles of public service extolled by their owners, who were wealthy local patrons and sometimes members of parliament.
But identifying these themes and searching for details on the Australian suburban press among the histories and analysis of the mainstream media is a frustrating exercise. The suburban press has long been ignored, and its history is often seen as a footnote to the more detailed studies of the main players or as part of the broader corporate ownership strategies (e.g. Mayer, 1964; Munster, 1985; Souter, 1991). While excellent work has been done on the provincial and regional press (Kirkpatrick, 1984, 2000, 2008, 2010; Walker, 1976, 1980), the suburbans, as they became known, have a disparate and intermittent archive, often lacking context, detail and consequence. Apart from two articles (by Colin Hay and Greg Bright) in the journal Politics in 1974, there has been scant attention paid to the ownership and operation of Australian suburban newspapers, denoting not only an industry oversight, but an academic one too. One can speculate on the reasons for this, but perhaps it reflects the complicated ownership networks that characterised the suburban chains up until the 1980s, which made identifying common trends and patterns across the sector difficult. Indeed, the 1974 articles are noteworthy for their attempts to pin down ownership and influence in a competitive suburban environment. Hay attempted a systematic analysis of the sector, but began by noting that investigations into the weekly suburbans had been 'virtually non-existent' (1974: 176). Forty years later, little appears to have changed, and Hay's work remains a distant benchmark.
Yet suburban newspapers, in essence, share with the origins of Australia's main newspapers the same impulse for news: the colonial press treated Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide and Brisbane in much the same way that the modern suburban paper covers its patch--with an emphasis on local crime, politics and gossip. The suburbans were also a pivotal pawn in the early rivalries between Rupert Murdoch and the Packer family in Sydney (Griffen-Foley, 1999: 246-8). They also became one of the few genuine areas of competition between the major press owners in Sydney and Melbourne as the then News Limited and Fairfax battled for lucrative real estate and classified advertising revenue that made important contributions to the overall corporate bottom line.
One explanation for suburban press history being overlooked has probably been a hardy view that the papers are 'at the bottom of the journalistic foodchain, a slave to advertising, a pimp to consumerism and unworthy to be mentioned in the same breath as even the more lowly of regional dailies' (Griffin, 2002: 106).
Certainly, the model of a free publication solely supported by advertising revenue can foster doubts about the credibility and independence of content. Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke summarised the dilemma when he spoke to the suburban newspaper industry in 1984: '[Y]our publications have to rub shoulders with the so-called "junk mail", [but] you have something valuable to supply. In saying this, I recognise the catalyst to your industry is the interest advertisers have in a commercially attractive platform to merchandise their goods.' (http://pmtranscripts.dpmc.gov.au/browse.php?did=6345) This reality, however, is less problematic than it appears. Suburban newspapers are now part of large media organisations that apply the same standards to suburban news coverage as those required within paid-for metro newsrooms. Journalists and photographers move between suburban and metro titles. Smaller metro newsrooms still need to feed voracious news websites with copy, and they are often filled with local or suburban content.
This historically based city versus suburban prejudice is, then, more about journalism that's 'free' and journalism that's 'paid for', which historically has been equated with the difference between 'pap' and 'quality'. But the legitimacy of this distinction has been muddied by the digital revolution where what is free and what is paid for is the key debate in all newspapers' battle for revenue, and therefore survival. Central to this battle are the concepts of 'hyper-local' and 'citizen journalism' that elevate intensely local content reported (and relayed) online by people within the community (rather than trained journalists) for the community's benefit. Australian suburban newspapers have been ideally placed to embrace a version of hyper-localism that turns their in-paper content into updateable website coverage. This hyper-localism chimes with suburban newspapers' determination to re-brand themselves as 'community media' products that serve a group of people across a range of suburbs. It is a modern piece of nomenclature that also helps diminish any lingering pejorative associated with 'suburbans'. (I use 'suburbans' in most instances to reflect the historical focus of the article.) While these elements taken together identify the importance of the suburban newspaper to the current Australian media environment, they also highlight the limited historical understanding we have of the suburban press's origins and role.
It is perhaps more accurate to say of Australia's early city-based newspapers that they were all fundamentally suburban publications. Over time, as the cities grew to include vast suburban hinterlands, the opportunity for suburban newspapers to establish direct and commercially sustainable links to their heartland grew. There was a simple precedent for this, as Michael O'Connor (2003: xi) identified about The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, which made its first appearance in 1803: 'The newspaper was written for a small number of people living together in a tiny place.' What this meant in practice was later characterised by a member of the Mott family press dynasty, Walter Jr: 'Photos and names of people and what they were doing were the most important part of a suburban newspaper.' (ANHG, 2001: 8)
While these impulses are evident in most newspapers, it is also true that the primacy of the local audience was a guiding principle for more than 200 years of suburban newspapers in Australia. But it would not have been successful without the support of local businesses and merchant classes, who expanded their businesses through advertising in their local paper.
The publications' peak body, the Community Newspapers of Australia (CNA), credits The Parramatta Chronicle and Cumberland Advertiser of 1843 with the title of being the nation's first suburban newspaper. This was followed by The Williamstown Chronicle in Melbourne in 1854, and then the Brighton Southern Cross and The Footscray Advertiser (www.cna.org.au). These publications served discrete communities--Parramatta and Williamstown were large port settlements, separate from the main towns, with their own populations and interests.
There was a diverse ownership base and obviously a range of communities--some with distinct demands. On the face of it, unifying this disparate group was difficult. But the suburban press owners also recognised that their products were sufficiently distinct and sophisticated to demand a professional body to represent their interests. This seems a remarkably modern approach, even if the owners were united on the age-old cause of wages, initially over printers' salaries. In August 1900, the Melbourne Suburban Press Association was formed, with the owner of the Essendon Gazette, M.C. Mott, the chairman (Argus, 20 August 1900). The association pre-dated the founding of the Australian Journalists' Association by a decade, and was five years ahead of the formation of the Printing Industries Employees' Union (Lloyd, 1985: 117), suggesting that business was quicker than labour to see the value of being organised. At a meeting with the Victorian Premier, (later Sir) Alexander Peacock, in July 1901, the Suburban Press Association even lobbied for striking a lower wage structure for suburban journalists (Argus, 31 July 1901).
The association chairman in Melbourne, Charnock Mott, belonged to a family of newspaper owners. (Members of the Mott family were involved with newspapers in Western Australia and regional Victoria, as well as several Leader papers in Melbourne.) The Motts understood that owning suburban newspapers entailed serious responsibilities --to honour competition and tradition as the foundations of the local news business. It was a tough environment, where only those who knew their audience survived. When the third newspaper serving the Brighton area of Melbourne closed, one of its rivals editorialised:
Every district requires two local journals to prevent monopoly and a complete representation to every phase of public life and public interest, but more than two is felt to be a burden, an excrescence, and a nuisance. The short-wretched life of The Independent and its miserable lingering death should give a salutary lesson to the persons who rushed in to an unwarranted competition with two old established and well-conducted newspapers. (Oakleigh Leader, 31 August 1895)
The Melbourne Suburban Press Association is not mentioned on the CNA website. The absence is compounded by a similar oversight about the establishment of a NSW suburban press peak body following Labor Premier Jack Lang's proposal to introduce a newspaper tax in 1926. Within a year of the proposal being quietly withdrawn from the parliament, a Suburban Newspaper Publishers' Association was established through the NSW Chamber of Manufactures (Sydney Morning Herald, 2 February 1928). While the NSW group appears to have been a broader business-oriented lobby group, its strength--as in Melbourne--was its ability to unite a range of press owners and their readers. These oversights in the peak body's public history are symptomatic of an industry that remains disconnected from its past and confirms the long shadow cast by the main media organisations over their suburban colleagues.
The consequence of this oversight is to ignore how durable some of the suburban titles have been, reflecting their prolonged success in connecting with their audience. Leader Community Newspapers in Melbourne, which publishes 33 weekly free tabloids for an audience of 1.7 million readers, began in 1888 in the inner northern suburbs with the Northcote Leader and District Record (heritage.darebinlibraries.vic.gov.au/ article/415). The Motts took it over in 1924 and it became part of a small empire that commanded a third of Melbourne's population reading Leader titles every week. The papers were eventually bought by the Herald and Weekly Times (HWT) in 1986 and then absorbed into News Limited when Rupert Murdoch bought HWT the following year. Similarly, Sydney's NewsLocal group can trace its origins to the Parramatta Chronicle in 1843. By 1960, when Murdoch paid 1 million [pounds sterling] for what was then called Cumberland Newspapers, it comprised 24 free newspapers that spanned Sydney to the west, south and north.
Big corporate players help preserve such titles by providing the resourcing and economies of scale to enable many titles to survive. But this is not always true for the 'independent' suburban titles, especially because they are 'free'. The giveaway newspaper is, almost by definition, disposable, and many titles have come and gone, succumbing to commercial pressures, and complicating attempts to record their origins, the length of their existence and their ownership.
'Free' was not always the case. The colonial examples of suburban newspapers carried a cover price of either a penny or halfpenny. This model of a paid-for local newspaper lasted until the depredations of World War I, when newspaper owners were forced to introduce a free alternative, largely because of newsprint shortages reducing the size of their publications. The problem with being 'free' was that it increased their reliance on advertising, which in turn posed problems for the journalism.
Some of the local papers adopted a tone of 'boosterism' to advocate the value of their suburbs to local readership. The motive might have been sound, but the effect was to conflate commercial interests with journalistic activity, as the Frankston Standard made clear in 1939: 'As a local paper it is our duty to foster local trade as much as possible. He would be a very unfair critic who said we ever depart from this first essential of local journalism. From time to time we publish articles setting out why residents should shop locally, and those arguments are irrefutable.' (Frankston Standard, 28 July 1939)
By the 1960s, most suburban newspapers were free and hand-delivered to letterboxes. Many of them lacked design appeal because they were subject to the display whims of advertisers. The journalism often lacked rigour and clarity. When these factors were added together, there was plenty of evidence to support the notion of a 'local rag'.
It was the direct involvement of the three big media players--Murdoch (News), Packer (Australian Consolidated Press) and Fairfax--that helped increase the quality across the papers by standardising design (for news pages and advertising space), and recruitment and training for young journalists, many of whom moved on to metro titles. The competition across the big Sydney and Melbourne markets was fierce, especially for the lucrative real estate dollars that was being driven by demand for accommodation from large-scale immigration to the suburbs. New titles appeared in New South Wales and Victoria between 1990 and 2005, meaning that there were often three suburban papers competing across the one local government area. News Corp Australia produces more than 100 free papers in Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and the Northern Territory, and jointly owns Perth Community Newspapers with SevenWestMedia. Fairfax has papers in Sydney and Melbourne, but closed several titles in suburban Melbourne in 2013.
There are still strong and independent newspapers, such as Perth Suburban Newspapers and Torch Newspapers, which has three titles in Sydney. The Star News Group publishes 27 titles in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, in competition with News Corp Australia and Fairfax titles.
The importance of an independent local media was affirmed during the Finkelstein Inquiry in 2012. The inquiry's final report noted that a priority was actually covering more local news and that newspapers had a key role to play in that task. 'To the extent that they are local, newspapers are critical to the coverage of matters of local interest. Further weakening of their already modest contribution to informing local communities would not be desirable.' (Finkelstein, 2013: 330) Missing from this recommendation is an endorsement of the role that suburban newspapers (and websites) could take in making that happen, rather than just directing the metro mastheads to cover more local news. The omission is symptomatic of how the suburban press has often been ignored in modern industry debates.
Community newspapers would--perhaps predictably--argue that they have shown no diminution in their commitment to, or coverage of, local news over the past century. The rapid evolution of digital journalism has meant that local news has sufficient appeal to a small community of online readers to also help fund local reporting. This model is not radically new. Indeed, it represents the same impulse to inform and engage a local community that drove the establishment of Australia's first suburban newspapers. The challenge now is how to make that sustainable. And it is just as important for the suburban or community media is to make sure they are part of the debate about their own future.
Australian Newspaper History Group Newsletter (ANHG) 2001, No. 13, July.
Barila, G. 2010, 'Hyperlocal: Really, Really Local', in Life in the Clickstream, MEAA, Sydney.
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Community Newspapers of Australia, website, www.cna.org.au.
Darebin heritage website, heritage.darebinlibraries.vic.gov.au.
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The Essendon Gazette
The Frankston Standard
The Northcote Leader
The Oakleigh Leader
The Sydney Morning Herald
Nick Richardson has been a journalist for more than 30 years. He has worked in metropolitan and suburban newsrooms as well as coordinating editorial training across News Corp Australia. His doctorate is in Australian history and he is Adjunct Professor of Journalism at La Trobe University.