The start of The Australian 50 years ago from a small plant in Mort St, Canberra, was described by former editor-in-chief David Armstrong as the result of a “wonderful, crazy idea”.
It was indeed that, with the odds factored heavily against its survival, let alone its success. It had to overcome huge financial obstacles, a scale of distribution never attempted by a daily newspaper, as well as state prejudices. The proposal for the new paper also faced still opposition from the News Limited board.
The paper leap-frogged into existence off the back of a biweekly newspaper edited and printed in the Australian Capital Territory by Ken Cowley, who went on to became chairman and chief executive of News Limited.
After meeting Rupert Murdoch in 1962 at the conclusion of a tour of the plant of that produced his Daily Mirror afternoon newspaper in Sydney, he offered to buy Mr Cowley’s paper, The Territorial – an offer that was rejected.
Later Mr Cowley approached Mr Murdoch with an idea for a new national newspaper. “It wasn’t my idea,” Mr Cowley told D.D. McNicoll in an interview for The Australian. “A lot of people were talking about the role of a national newspaper then … so I went and talked to Rupert about it – and my having some sort of role in it,’’ he said. “But of course, at the speed Rupert travels, he grabbed the idea and burned me off in about three days.’’
With Mr Murdoch’s decision to launch the paper, he offered Mr Cowley an editorial position, which he declined, preferring instead to involve himself in the critical role of its production and distribution.
The paper came off the Mort St presses for the first time on July 14, 1964, a testament to the vision and commitment of Mr Murdoch and the passion of the people who worked under him.
Mr Cowley takes great pride in the role The Australian has played in shaping the culture of the nation and its impact on the community. \“Because of the size of the country, and the relatively small population at the time, the nation needed a powerful voice that crossed state borders and brought it together,” he told The Bulletin.
“As a national paper, The Australian performed that function.
“There were many difficulties to overcome, both physically in terms of production and distribution, as well as financially. I know Rupert met with significant pressure and resistance from the News Limited board at the time of the start-up in Canberra.
“It was a courageous decision and required an immense commitment to stick with the idea until it eventually turned a profit.
“Rupert always has surrounded himself with clever, passionate people – and they broke new ground to produce the paper.”
Mr Cowley believes a successful national distribution of The Australian would not have been possible without the introduction of facsimile transmission of pages over Telecom lines to print sites in Melbourne and Brisbane. This was later widened to include Adelaide and Perth, 30 years prior to modern remote-site printing that was made possible by digital processes.
“I doubt we could have done what we did without it,” he said. “It was a tremendous achievement”. Asked if he believed The Australian would still be going 50 years later, he said: “I always had faith the paper would fulfil our vision. It took many years to turn sufficient profit to ensure its viability, but I always knew that it would.”
Mark Day, media writer and former publisher of The Australian
1. 1964 – The launch. The early 60s saw the emergence of a new revolutionary spirit led by the post-war baby boomers determined to re-make the world in their own image of love, not war. Rupert Murdoch, then aged 34, sensed the unrest of the early 60s would grow rather than fade and reasoned that the time was right to launch a national newspaper that would carry and interpret a new national conversation beyond the traditional state boundaries of the established press. He was right in that The Australian found an eager audience, but it was not large enough to deliver profits and from its inception the paper struggled.
2. 1966 – Facsimile. From its launch, The Australian faced almost insurmountable odds to meet its ambition of being on the breakfast tables of the nation. Its newsroom was in Canberra, where the paper was edited and composed, but its main audiences were in the major capital cities. Each night between 11 pm and midnight aircraft would take off from Canberra and deliver mattes to Sydney and Melbourne where presses would roll in the wee small hours. Papers would then be distributed locally and supplies flown to Brisbane and Adelaide. However, this nerve-wracking system failed when Canberra’s frequent fogs rolled in, grounding all aircraft. The solution came in the form of facsimile machines that sent high quality page proofs, first to Melbourne, then Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth in what was to become the biggest and most sophisticated satellite printing system in the world.
3. 1977 – The Weekend Australian. Through 1976-7 The Australian was losing $5 million a year and there was persistent talk of closure. As a defensive move it was decided to beef up the Saturday edition of The Australian with the kind of week-in-review features and extended arts pages that had been popular with the short-lived Sunday Australian and promote its sale across two days. The reasoning was that if the Monday to Friday edition had to be killed, The Australian would still have a presence in the market. The Woz changed readers’ habits, provoked imitators and became an immediate success, often reaching 136 broadsheet pages, providing the profit to support the continued Monday to Friday editions.
4. 1982 – Two minutes to midnight. Industrial unrest among printers and journalists cost The Australian dearly, not only in terms of wages, but also in disruptions that affected sales. When journalists walked out in a dispute over new technology in 1982 then News Limited chief executive Ken Cowley formed the view that radical surgery was required. Overnight, he spoke to Rupert Murdoch in New York and discussed a make or break tactic – submission from the strikers or closure. Murdoch said: “You decide.” When the strikers met in a car park adjoining the News Limited headquarters the next day Cowley sent a message: “You are back in the building in five minutes or we close the paper.” They were back at work with two minutes to spare.
5. 1985 – Profit. After accumulated losses of $44 million, a significant amount at the time, The Australian made a maiden profit of $100,000 in 1985. Profits continued through the 80s and 90s, with a peak of $20 million in the late 90s built mainly on large advertising revenues for its Tuesday computers section and strong careers advertising in the Weekend Australian. Like all newspapers around the world The Australian saw these revenue streams migrate quickly to the internet around the millennium.
Paul Kelly, editor-at-large of The Australian, and a former editor-in-chief
1. The creation of a national conversation from the moment of the paper’s launch in mid-1964. The Australian changed the national debate simply because it was a path-breaking event: a national newspaper covering technology, aviation, rural and farm issues, mining, higher education, the economy and politics. It was the first nail in the provincialism of the newspaper industry, totally dominated at that time by state mindsets.
2. The articulation in the 1960s of an agenda for modern Australia – represented by support for the arts, rejection of stifling censorship laws and, above all, a sustained and influential critique of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, a process that culminated in support for the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972, a recognition that the old order needed a thorough shaking-up.
3. The launch of the Weekend Australian, a paper that over time became the single most influential newspaper publication in the nation.
4. The pioneering over many years of the paper’s war historical commemoration series honouring the Australians and their families who had served abroad in various conflicts, providing lists of the diggers and special features on wars, their military and strategic significance – this became a tangible feature in the resurgence of the Anzac story.
5. Support for the re-making of the Australian economy from Hawke-to-Keating-to-Howard; this should not be confused with necessarily supporting one side of politics against another at elections; it was, rather, a reflection of the paper’s deep commitment to a de-regulated economy, small government, a competitive tax system, an end to the regulated industrial system and a commitment to ensure that Australia buried its old protectionist mindset and became a success story in the globalised economy.
Warren Beeby, former News Limited group editorial director and a former editor of The Australian
1. Introduction of facsimile transmission to publish at interstate press sites, ending the tyranny of air-freight, which often disrupted distribution because of poor weather.
2. Recognition that computers would be a force to be reckoned with, that led to the creation of The Australian’s Automation News page, which became the Computer Section, then later the IT section. This was ahead of all other papers, and The Australian’s national reach enabled it to dominate the IT jobs and hardware advertising markets. This revenue freed the paper of 20 years of establishment losses and sustained it for the next 20 years until, through lack of foresight, management took its eye off the ball and allowed the internet job sites to eat their market.
3. Closure of The Sunday Australian due to insufficient printing capacity in Sydney on a Saturday night, after News Limited acquired the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs in 1972. (The Sunday Mirror was still being printed at the time). This allowed the creation of The Weekend Australian (printed on a Friday night) which became the paper’s circulation leader to the present day.
4. Introduction of the Harris computer production system that effectively cut double handling of copy by putting the production tools in the hands of journalists, as opposed to printers. Ironically, the system started on April Fools’ Day, 1979, and immediately began regular crashes that made production a nightmare for several years.
5. The extension of printing facilities to all capital cities, allowing timely and extensive circulation in all states, and later colour presses that provided opportunities for both advertising and editorial. The final link in the chain came with the launch of new colour presses in Darwin in 2013.
Campbell Reid, News Corp Australia group editorial director, and former editor of The Australian
1. The decision to found it in the first place.
2. The decision to publish an IT section from day one.
3. Its involvement in the political turmoil of the 1970s and its courage to be a participant in the events of the time.
4. Launch of The Weekend Australian and then the weekend magazine.
5. Nailing its colours to the wall and running a campaign for Australia to vote yes for a republic (I would say that because I was the editor at the time).