Read all about it

By Andrew Stone

Former editor David Hastings has the scoop on the papers that kick-started the Queen City, reports Andrew Stone

David Hastings spent several years delving into the history of Auckland's newspapers. Photo / Sarah Ivey
David Hastings spent several years delving into the history of Auckland's newspapers. Photo / Sarah Ivey

On a visit to the files at the Auckland Museum, author David Hastings watched white-gloved archivists tenderly handle original pages from an old newspaper with respectful care.

The scene struck a chord.

"It occurred to me then that the paper from yesterday is destined for fish and chips. But the paper from 150 years ago is a treasure of knowledge and information."

For the past couple of years, Hastings has been digging into this storehouse, poring over the very first newspapers that appeared on the unpaved streets of Auckland. The former newspaper editor used microfilmed copies for his research - rather than inspecting the carefully curated papers from the past - and figures that he read hundreds of copies of the country's earliest editions.

The result of his work - Extra! Extra! - is a breezy history of the Queen City's 19th century titles, the editors who shaped them, the owners who rose and fell with them and the reading public who decided whether the black-and-white publications prospered or died.

It was a vigorous time. Competition was cut-throat and rival papers leaped on their opponents' blunders.

When rumour swept Auckland in 1850 that colonial Governor Sir George Grey was preparing to grant independence to the southern provinces and shift the capital to Wellington, David Burn, editor of the Southern Cross, let rip, accusing Grey of having a "malignant personality" and abusing his power over the region.

At the rival New Zealander, editor Dr John Bennett - whose paper supported the Governor - published a scoop about Grey's intentions and gloated about his competition: "Its day is nearly gone."

Bennett's hopes were too optimistic. The Southern Cross lasted until 1876, when it threw in its lot with another morning paper, the New Zealand Herald. But well before then, reports Hastings, on at least one memorable occasion, the paper tipped a bucket on its daily rival.

Once again, the Governor was close to the heart of the story, as tensions between Pakeha settlers, Grey's administration and Maori in the Waikato edged closer to war.

For the newspapers of the time, events to the south of Auckland were fundamental to the security of the young colony.

At the time the New Zealander was consistently beaten to the punch by the Cross' ability to break stories. Under the hammer, the New Zealander succumbed to the appeal of rumour when reporter Frederick J. von Sturmer heard of a massacre of 10 Pakeha near Wairoa.

The atrocity suggested the theatre of guerrilla war was spreading. Von Sturmer sought corroboration from the skipper of the Sandfly, a Navy gunboat which had arrived in Auckland from Wairoa.

Satisfied, von Sturmer wrote his story and, on July 30, 1863, the New Zealander published the scoop.

Except it wasn't.

"He fell into a rather elementary trap," remarked Hastings. "What the skipper was really telling him was he'd heard the story too."

The upshot of what Hastings calls "one of the great blunders of New Zealand journalism" was the appearance of official notices around the city correcting the error and appealing for calm and, from the rival Southern Cross, a dig in an editorial.

"A rumour of these murders having been committed reached us too but being only a rumour we abstained from giving publicity to it," the paper crowed.

If anything, the New Zealander was slow to learn. It found the going tough against the Cross, expertly led by editor and professional journalist Robert Creighton and his network of war correspondents.

In April 1864, the New Zealander sensationally reported that the southern Waikato settlement of Maungatautari had fallen, with the loss of 60 British lives and 160 Maori.

The story was fiction. The Cross published more thorough accounts from the Waikato conflict while the New Zealander, Auckland's first enduring newspaper, edged nearer to its end. Fire eventually killed it off in May 1866. By some accounts the paper fell victim to losing touch with its readers.

Hastings, who as the former editor of the Weekend Herald knows a thing or two about staying in tune with readers, thinks it's closer to the truth to say the New Zealander failed because too often it was beaten to the story.

Of the newspapermen he got to know through his research, Hastings considers Henry Brett the best of the lot. A compositor by trade, Brett was a terrific reporter, resourceful and tough.

One rival complained he was "slippery as an eel". His bristling energy helped make the Evening Star a runaway success.

"You can see from reading the bits and pieces he left behind that he was a demon for hard work and getting the story first."

Brett's most memorable scoop sums up the 19th century reporter's life. From his Parnell Ridge home, Brett could make out the flagpole on Devonport's Mt Victoria, which signalled when a vessel was approaching the harbour. On a spring day in 1868, Brett, shipping reporter for the Herald, grabbed a waterman and dashed out to the Lord Ashley, a steamer coming from the East Coast. A packet tossed off the vessel to Brett's rowboat held sensational news of a massacre at Poverty Bay. By mid-afternoon, the Herald had published a special edition, the town rang to the paperboys' cries of "extra, extra", readers stirred by a big story lapped it up and rival publications were left scrambling to match the yarn.

From his immersion in Auckland's early newspaper culture, Hastings was convinced that readers were well served. Even if news was not delivered within the blink of a digital eye, it came as soon as horses, ships or the telegraph made it available. Even then, communication was all about speed.

When Mt Tarawera erupted in 1886, the papers were crammed with coverage. One young reporter made a difficult journey to confirm the destruction of the famous Pink and White Terraces, told his boss in Rotorua, and the dramatic news was sent by telegraph to Auckland.

Says Hastings: "The reporting was absolutely first rate when you consider they couldn't file from a laptop or a mobile phone. They got to people and told their stories. They were spectacularly good at that sort of thing."

The story shows, observes Hastings, that more than a century later, the world of news still throbs to the same rhythms.

The papers that did best and thrived had a keen sense of what their readers wanted, and were determined to beat their rivals to the stories that mattered.

Extra! Extra! How the people made the news by David Hastings (Auckland University Press, $45) goes on sale March 8.

- NZ Herald

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