History of a paper anniversary
The Canberra Times turns 100 this year.
HEAVEN forfend that this humble organ would want to gatecrash Canberra's 100th birthday party - but in significant respects, it is also the 100th anniversary of the idea of The Canberra Times. Thomas Shakespeare attended the ceremony of the naming of Canberra with four of his boys - all still at school - and afterwards told them the reason he had brought them for the historic occasion was at the right moment, he and they would launch the national city's newspaper.
He told the boys they must prepare themselves. Arthur, the oldest, should thoroughly learn the practice of journalism. The others, Chris (Jack), James (Bill) and Clarence, should learn the techniques of newspaper production and business management. The paper they established would develop with the town and city until it became, as Canberra matured, a great civilised metropolitan daily, quoted around the world.
Thomas (or T. M.) Shakespeare was an old newspaper man who had owned the Lachlander in Condobolin and the Grafton Argus, but, by 1913, was largely resident in Sydney where he managed the affairs of the Country Press Association, which he had helped found. At the time there were up to 20 daily newspapers in rural NSW, and some had great local power because the Sydney newspapers arrived a day or so late.
T. M. had been an ardent federalist, and appreciated from the start a newspaper for Canberra would be - or end up being - a different and more complex ambition than running a newspaper in any other town or city. Canberra was to be, after all, the national capital, not a mere regional centre.
Its newspaper would have to have a national outlook. This did not mean that it would not be closely focused on the affairs of Canberra, and the doings of its citizens, but it did mean it would have to rise above the petty and parochial to embrace what Canberra was all about - being the first city of the nation, the centre of parliamentary and executive government, and the home of people closely concerned with the affairs of people in the states and territories, and with Australia's relationship with the wider world.
In 1913 Shakespeare did not realise his Canberra dream was going to be profoundly affected by the First World War - which started only 18 months after - nor the pall of the epidemic which followed it. But soon there was a burst of energy on roads, sewerage and basic infrastructure followed by the commencement of the temporary parliament house. That start, 11 years from the naming of Canberra, was the signal for a prepared family to get moving. Arthur was, by now, a senior journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald. Jack, Bill and Clarence had learnt their crafts, running a newspaper at Richmond. In late 1924, T. M. was in Canberra buying at auction two blocks of land on Mort Street, Civic - the very first commercial leases in the new territory - and four residential leases, one for each of the sons. Federal Capital Press of Australia Ltd, with a capital of £25,000, was soon afterwards incorporated, and a building, with two wings each about 30 metres long - in all about 720 square metres - arose soon afterwards. It was to be largely a family affair - the builder was Shakespeare's brother John, who was also a monument mason. John's memorial business was conducted from the back, on what is now called Genge Street.
As if to emphasise that The Canberra Times could provide for readers from birth to death, part of the Cooyong Street frontage was rented to the newly established Canberra Mothercraft Society as an infant health centre, and you could get your gravestone cut around the corner.
Shakespeare had chosen the site because it was in front of the planned Canberra railway station. The 1908 treaty between the Commonwealth and NSW had provided for the railway between Sydney and Cooma to have a spur line to Canberra through Queanbeyan, with the track continued (at NSW expense) until it met up with the station, and the railway to Melbourne at Yass. There was also supposed to be a railway between Canberra and Jervis Bay.
Shakespeare imagined that this network of trains could carry copies of The Canberra Times into neighbouring parts of NSW - though he understood perfectly well what some observers never did: that it is very hard for a newspaper of one jurisdiction to gain a great foothold in another.
With one thing or another, including the unaccountable failure of NSW to build a line from Yass to Hall, and the propensity of the Kings Avenue Railway bridge over the Molonglo River to be swept away by floods, the railway station was moved to Kingston, and rail was never a factor in our circulation.
The first Canberra Times emerged on September 3, 1926, with Arthur (A. T.) as editor, his brother Clarence and his cousin Alf as reporters, brother Jack managing plant and machinery, and Bill serving as accountant. T. M. was managing director.
The population of Canberra was then about 6600 and expanding. It was expected to balloon from the middle of the following year, when the temporary capital and parliament at Melbourne ceased operations, and government moved north.
Originally a weekly, within six months the paper became a daily, as it was always planned. A Sunday edition was not started until May 28, 1978. That aside we have not, so far as I am aware, missed a beat, or a publication day, since.
Alas for the grand and expansive plans, Australia was soon hit by recession, and the retrenchment this caused brought the development of Canberra to a halt, seriously limiting the paper's capacity to meet its ambitions.
It was grim through the war and into the 1950s, until in 1955 Robert Menzies decided that the capital should grow as originally intended, and a newspaper, already ambitious for its small circulation, began to be able to afford itself.
Some think that the Shakespeares planned either a national newspaper, or some sort of Washington Post - a grand newspaper of affairs, almost above reporting the trivial and minuscule affairs of the local natives, except where they touched on great matters of state. That was never the intention.
Shakespeare wanted his newspaper to be the newspaper of Canberra, the champion of Canberra and its people, and the newspaper that anyone coming to Canberra would have to read to understand what was happening in the city. But he understood also that the city was the nation's capital, and that great matters of legislation, policy and administration would be determined here, and that such matters would be the business of the people of Canberra - the sort of thing that they knew about, talked about, and needed information about. Because politics, statecraft and administration - and the development of Australia as a nation - was the fundamental business of Canberra, it had, necessarily, to be the business of The Canberra Times and its reporters. In this sense it was to be expected that national and federal politics - and international news - would be more extensively covered than in some other newspapers, but it was never intended that this would be achieved by failing to thoroughly report all aspects of the life of the city.
Indeed, in those days before there was even a plan for self-government, or even representation in the Federal Parliament, the Shakespeares were determined their newspaper would be the tribune, sounding box and speakers corner of the community, as well as the first citizen of the capital. There have been many strong citizens over the past 100 years, but I do not think any joined, invigorated, invigilated and supported as many societies, organisations and civic groups as the members of the Shakespeare clan.
When the Shakespeare family sold to the Fairfaxes in 1964 it was on terms by which the new owners recommitted themselves to the Shakespeare vision. Major competition from Rupert Murdoch, who planned to launch his national newspaper, The Australian, from Canberra, quickly swamping The Canberra Times and acquiring its by-now significant advertising revenues, led the Fairfaxes to quickly expand to meet the competition, and, ultimately, drive The Australian from the ACT.
After the disastrous breakup of Fairfax in 1987, we passed briefly to Kerry Packer, who sold us to Kerry Stokes in 1989. Stokes sold to Rural Press in 1998, and, through it, we rejoined Fairfax in 2007.
We are not making this 100th anniversary a big thing in this (come-September) our 87th year of publication. But we know of few older institutions in this town and still flatter ourselves to think the ghost of T. M., however astonished at what has been wrought, would still recognise and claim his paper as much as his city.