"There can be scarcely conceived a greater or more apparent difference than exists between the staid and sedate inhabitants of rural districts, and the motley group of miners, professional men and merchants, thickly interspersed with sharpers, refugees, and a full selection from the dangerous classes that swagger, armed to the teeth, through the diggings and infest the roads leading to the newly discovered gulches, where lies the object of their worship – gold."
Thomas Dimsdale cited in D.F.Halaas, Boom Town Newspapers.
While newspapers established in major population centres such as Sydney and Melbourne were assured of a fairly stable readership, the story was not the same in the gold fields themselves. Mining towns were inhabited by a largely transient and fickle population that had a tendency to de-camp at the drop of a hat when gold was discovered elsewhere. No fewer than 34 newspapers established in the 1860s lasted less than two years. The gold fields newspaper game was only for the brave.
At Lambing Flat, The Miner and General Advertiser (established in 1861) both closed after only nine months – a period which included the Lambing Flat riots. The constant flow of floundering newspapers was rather gleefully reported by the Lambing Flat correspondent of The Sydney Morning Herald who seemed to believe that some of the blame was due to the initiators of the newspapers. Reflecting on the demise of George Dunmore Lang’s Burrangong Courier the correspondent wrote:
"...the three attempts that have been made on this field to establish a newspaper, each of them adopting the same course in systematic bullying and blackguarding every official or respectable person who dared to give an opinion on any subject contrary to what they advocated … the wonder is not that they all caved but that they dragged out a miserable existence so long as they did."
On the Lachlan gold fields where the town of Forbes was established, five newspapers were established in the 1860s, three surviving less than a year and none more than six years. The Miner, lasting for three years from 1861–1864 was a continuation of the original Lambing Flat newspaper but after its demise in its former home the prospects were no better in Forbes. After its demise in 1864 Forbes had no newspaper for seven months, and it wasn’t until 1870 that the Forbes Times was established. It remained in operation for 50 years.
The 1860s and 70s were a time when any professional man with a modicum of financial backing could establish a newspaper – quantity rather than quality was the order of the day. Charles William Morgan, who had already run newspapers in Forbes, Lambing Flat, Adelong and Yass, came to Gundagai in 1864 with the same dream. Unfortunately for him and the other proprietors, the readers did not share the dream and The Murrumbidgee Herald closed after only three months of publication.
There seemed to be no definitive answers as to why there were so many newspaper casualties during the gold rushes but mismanagement, saturation of a small market, and lack of variety in content must have contributed. The mixture of poetry, local gossip and the occasional political commentary was not enough to compete with magazines and books freely available from the "mother country".
There were however, some success stories. In 1865, within a month of each other, the Armidale Telegraph and the Manning River News were launched, and both survived more than seven years. Perhaps it was the politicisation of newspaper journalism that contributed to the success of both these publications. The Telegraph gave Armidale an alternative political voice to the "mendacious and one-sided" Armidale Express, which had opposed the squatters at each election since its establishment. The Telegraph was virtually established in direct response to the land dispute between the squatters and the government over rental rates in order to provide an alternative view. When this was resolved within a year of publication, the need for the Telegraph diminished to such an extent that it could only manage to struggle on to 1872 when it finally closed.
The Bushman’s Bible
After the hey-days of the gold fields there was a politicisation of rural journalism, represented perhaps the most spectacularly by The Bulletin. Never one to shrink away from blowing its own trumpet, in January 1881, The Bulletin advised that: "Every bushman should have The Bulletin mailed to him every quarter". This, despite only being in existence for a year was to become a self-fulfilling prophesy for in 1891, Scottish writer Francis Adams recorded in his "The Australians" that a backblocks shearer had told him: "If I’d only one sixpence left, I’d buy The Bulletin with it."
The Bulletin began life in 1880, the brainchild of J F Archibald, as a city gossip sheet, full of news about the Sydney social scene, the despised NSW Governor and the less-than impressive Macquarie Street politicians. Staunchly republican, Archibald’s Bulletin castigated people who saw Australia as a "small slip of land lying between Tom Ugly’s Point and Barrenjoey", about the area the early paper covered.
Archibald’s ideal was to have the paper read for its honesty, intelligence and liveliness and read by men and women everywhere. It steadily became apparent that the bush was providing the best support base for new material to keep his publication alive – the growth of trade unions, moves towards federation and the growth in population all contributing valuable subject matter for discussion and publication.
The Bulletin did have competitors in the bush market, namely the Sydney Mail and the Town and Country Journal but the support base was steady enough that it grew from year to year and remained popular with the core readership of shearers, farmers and those in favour of a move towards an Australian republic.
by Nicole Grant
Rod Kirkpatrick, Country Conscience: A History of the New South Wales Provincial Press 1841 – 1995, Infinite Harvest Publishing, 2000.
Patricia Rolfe, The Journalistic Javelin: An Illustrated History of the Bulletin, Wildcat Press, 1979.