Monday, May 22, 2006

SMH 175

The Sydney Morning Herald broadsheet is 175 years old in 2006. It is Australia’s oldest surviving continuous published newspaper and has published over 51,000 editions.

The SMH preaches to the Sydney “AB demographic” (the highest demographic in terms of education, income and occupation.) Politically it is a soft right voice and has supported the Liberal Party (or its historical equivalents) on nearly all of the 100 or so elections during its 175 year history. It has never supported Labor at state level and federally supported Labor just twice. It supported John Curtin during the war election. Then in 1961 the Herald recommended voting for the ALP's Arthur Calwell over longterm Liberal PM, Robert Menzies (Labor lost) while in the most recent Federal election in 2004 it remained neutral (and again Labor lost.)

The Sydney Morning Herald began its life as a weekly newspaper in 1831, the Sydney Herald. It only had four pages and a circulation of 750 copies. The paper was founded by three English gentlemen, Alfred Stephens, Frederick Stokes and William McGarvie. The paper was named for the Glasgow Herald. The lead story in the first edition was "the undermentioned prisoners of the Crown have obtained Tickets of Leave about or on this day of publication".

They were often in hot water for libellous activities. An early court case occurred in 1834 when Stephens and Stokes were hauled in front of the NSW Supreme Court for criminal libel reflecting on the character of W. B. Halden, reporter to the rival Sydney Gazette.

After ten years, the newspaper was bought out by Charles Kemp and John Fairfax from Frederick Stokes for £10,000. Their first activity was to turn it into a daily newspaper, which they did in 1840. Two years later, they changed the title to The Sydney Morning Herald. Its editorial policies were based "upon principles of candour, honesty and honour. We have no wish to mislead; no interest to gratify by unsparing abuse or indiscriminate approbation."

John Fairfax’s tactic was to cover the front page with classified advertising. That, in the words of ABC’s Gerald Tooth, was a “revenue stream (that) eventually grew to be the rivers of gold that have, until now, kept the famous masthead afloat.” John Fairfax was born in Warwick, England. He worked as printer, bookseller and stationer before emigrating to Sydney aged 34. Fairfax was a member of the Congregational church but his paper was kept free from religious bias and sectarianism. Business was his real religion. When a young member of his staff told John Fairfax that he was studying the bible, Fairfax replied "That's right, my boy, that's right! To learn what great things God has done for mankind in the past, read your Bible. And to learn what He permits to be done today, read the Herald."

In 1853 SMH became the first Australian newspaper to be printed with steam. In 1872 the news agency Reuters was starting to flex its global muscle and they entered into a contract to provide international news for the SMH. The evening edition was established in 1899. All that tradition counted for nought in 1990 when Fairfax went into receivership, ending the relationship with the family. John Fairfax's great-great grandson Warwick had squandered his inheritance in the greedy eighties and put the company into receivership. The major stake went to Canadian Conrad Black and he sold on to the New Zealand based Brierley Investments in 1996. Fairfax Holdings bought back their stake in 1998. They still own the SMH and the Melbourne Age as well as the Australian Financial Review, the Sydney Sunday Sun-Herald and a number of provincial and NZ newspapers. The SMH publishes 210,000 copies daily (March 2006) Monday to Friday and the circulation increases to 365,000 for its Saturday edition.

SMH’s impressive advertising revenues are now under threat from new digital challengers but current SMH editor Alan Oakley talks up the future of the paper in his interview with the ABC on April 20: “Initially I think print saw online as a threat; I think that's no longer the case. What we talk about now in Fairfax is an integrated approach to news, an integrated approach to how we gather that news, and an integrated approach to how we disseminate it whether that be through online or in print or through mobile technology, through podcasting.”

The Sydney Morning Herald will probably survive to see its 200th birthday but whether it will be in broadsheet form or via some sort of digital medium will be the challenge for Fairfax and Oakley.

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