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Writer releases conclusion of NZ newspaper history

Masterton-based author Ian F. Grant discusses the second part of his comprehensive history of New Zealand newspapers, what possessed him to write the books in the first place, and how current offerings measure up to the papers of the past.

Your new book, Pressing On, is the second instalment of your two-part history of New Zealand newspapers. What prompted you to embark on the project in the first place?

I suppose I’ve always been interested in newspapers along with writing. I edited and radically changed my secondary school’s magazine, then edited Victoria University’s Salient paper for two years. Not too much later I was a founding director of National Business Review. Then, writing about political cartoons and starting the NZ Cartoon Archive at the National Library meant delving into old newspapers a great deal more and led to a continuing involvement with the Library’s Papers Past project.

How long did researching and writing the two books take, respectively?

Lasting Impressions, the history from 1840 to 1920, was published in 2018. I had worked on it, among various other projects, for at least a decade, much of it as the Turnbull Library’s first adjunct scholar and with spells at Victoria University’s Stout Centre. I’d already done a significant amount of research for Pressing On by 2018, so it took another five or so years for volume two.

What did researching involve specifically? Did it require physically going through old newspapers? Were there other, earlier books about NZ newspapers you could draw on?

Research for Lasting Impressions was very much a matter of searching archival records and old newspapers. With the marvellous digitising of over 100 newspapers in the Papers Past project, this was much simpler than when I’d earlier written a history of political cartooning in New Zealand. Then I had to comb through thousands of actual newspaper pages at the Turnbull Library, then on the Terrace in Wellington.

There had been only one previous book on NZ newspapers, published in 1958. The author – Guy Scholefield, a one- time editor of the Wairarapa Age – also lacked the advantages of researching and double-checking information with Papers Past. With Pressing On I could interview actual participants in the story and access research that a new breed of media studies academics were beginning to produce.

Modesty may preclude you from bringing it up yourself, but how was the first volume, Lasting Impressions, received when it was published?

The articles and reviews that appeared, both in the general and academic press, were very positive.

This was particularly satisfying as I’d written the book as a social history, as newspapers were a vital part of communities after 1840. But rather lukewarm sales suggest it was seen more as a reference book than a ‘good read’.

Lasting Impressions covered 1840 to 1920 – what was the thinking behind this time period?

I had originally intended to tell the whole story, up to the present day, in the one book, but it became increasingly clear with all the material I unearthed that this wouldn’t be possible unless I cut back severely on what I’d already written. I was told in no uncertain terms by wife and editor Diane, and others, that I wasn’t to throw away a lot of the detail I’d collected. It was also true then that it was highly unlikely, given the only other NZ newspaper history had been published 60 years previously, that anyone else would be writing about our press in the foreseeable future. By 1920, the book was fast approaching the 700-page mark and it was a good time to stop – after World War One and before the Great Depression.

Was there a reason for Pressing On, which starts at 1921, to end at 2000? That would be about the time that the digital realm started to have an impact on print news, wouldn’t it?

1921 to 2000 was a second 80-year period. But apart from the symmetry of this, and another book ballooning in size, it’s true that from about 2000 there were an increasing number of factors that were affecting newspapers in ways not seen before. While 1921-2000 was the golden era of the country’s newspapers, it also included the seeds of the challenges now evident. I stopped in 2000 because these challenges are not yet resolved and it’s impossible to write definitively about them. These challenges include: the corporatisation of newspapers that had been family businesses which combined a sense of public responsibility with profit; the opening up of our media to control by powerful international interests; the growing strength of commercial television and radio; the lightning growth of the Internet and its devouring of classified advertising, and the free harvesting of news produced by the country’s press.

Do you have views on how daily news has evolved since 2000 and what the future holds?

Nothing beats a newspaper in its physical form arriving in time for breakfast, backed up by a rigorous degree of fact-checking and ethical behaviour that’s lacking from a completely unregulated social media.

Do you think consumers of news are better served now than they used to be?

No, I don’t think news consumers are better served today. There’s certainly much more ‘news’ than ever, but it’s often an outpouring of headlines without context on smartphones or, much too frequently, a parade of conspiracy theories masquerading as facts on social media.

Pressing On: The story of New Zealand newspapers, 1921-2000 launches on May 30 and costs $69.59. Copies can be ordered by emailing [email protected]

1 COMMENT

  1. Sounds like this “Standfast” author has gone to insurmountable trouble to update Guy Scholefield’s “Newspapers in New Zealand.” Keen to know if Wairarapa journalist Archie Holms is mentioned not only as editor of The Featherstonian, but also of the Waipukurau Press when it was a key newspaper at the time of the Napier Earthquake. Another colleague of Holms, and a former stalwart of Wairarapa, born and bred in Greytown, was Reginald Hornblow, the editor of the Evening Post and the once popular Sports Post that we used to garner each week, nationwide. Of prominence, the Hornblow family were proud cousins of Arthur Hornblow Jr, the American film producer who won four Academy awards. Not only that, you will find his connection to the C S Forester’s Hornblower novels.

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