When The Sydney Herald first hit the presses in April 1831, the nation’s population had just hit 70,000.
There was no prime minister as federalism had not yet arrived on our shores, Melbourne didn’t exist and Australia had just made a major technological advancement: the first paddle steamer.
And while there may have been no federal election to cover, the Herald newsroom – which now houses hundreds of staff – had officially been born. Just 750 copies of the four-page newspaper were printed by its three founding members. It sold for seven pence.
So how has the Herald changed in 190 years? And what does the future hold?
How was the first edition of the Herald printed?
Initially printed as a weekly paper, the Sydney Herald was founded by Alfred Ward Stephens, Frederick Stokes and William McGarvie, who were staff of the now-defunct Sydney Gazette.
Stephens, 27, and McGarvie, 21, had sent to England for a small, hand-operated Columbian press in 1830. The only problem was that neither of them had any printing experience. Stokes’ father was a printer from Surrey and so the young Frederick (one of 19 siblings) joined his two colleagues in the endeavour of printing their own paper, which they did – in a two-storey stone building near the Gazette’s office in a laneway off George Street.
The paper was named loosely after the Glasgow Herald at the suggestion of McGarvie, who had a brief connection with the Scottish paper. The top of page one featured a motto that hangs in the Herald newsroom today: “In moderation placing all my glory, while Tories call me Whig, and Whigs a Tory.”
The paper became a commercial success very quickly, with the Herald becoming daily on October 1, 1840. It was later changed to The Sydney Morning Herald after it was bought by John Fairfax in 1841. The Fairfax family would own the paper for almost 150 years.
How did a newspaper look back then?
With just four columns on each of the four pages, there were no photographs, graphics or line drawings in the first Herald.
Instead, the front page featured government notices, shipping news, notices as to which prisoners had been given tickets of leave and classified ads.
The first front page featured a call-out for an apprentice to join the paper, along with which police officers that week had been sacked for “highly improper conduct”.
It even featured the auction of a 40-acre farm on the Nepean in which the contents of the house – 40 pigs, some tea, a bag of sugar and a pistol – were also for sale.
In fact, the Herald was one of the last newspapers to jump on board the trend of putting news on the front page instead of classified ads.
In 1908, photographs came to the Herald, forever changing the way we consume news. The first photo in the paper showed the arrival in Sydney of a visiting United States Navy squadron on August 21.
Photographs continued to be used at a very small size and sparingly until both photos and news began to creep their way onto the front page.
How has technology changed the way we produce newspapers?
In 1853, the paper imported its very first double-cylinder “Cowper press”, with the Herald becoming the first newspaper in Australia to be printed by steam. It allowed 3000 copies to be printed a day.
Towards the late 19th century this was upped to 24,000 copies an hour thanks to the Herald’s purchase of a rotary-letterpress, stereotype web-perfecting press. The paper would be placed on a central cylinder, surrounded by impression cylinders and inking rollers.
By 1908, the newsroom would be alive with the sound of reporters smacking away with heavy upright typewriters. The Herald started using Hattersley typesetting machines at the turn of the century, soon followed by Monoline and Mergenthaler linotypes.
During this time, to print the paper you would first have to cast each letter of every word into molten lead and wait for it to cool before slotting it into place.
News, back then, was quite literally hot off the press.
Even the fastest typesetter could manage just 14 lines a minute. Many of the typesetters were deaf because printing rooms were so noisy.
This slow process would continue until the birth of phototypesetting in the late 1970s, which worked by projecting text onto a light-sensitive medium which is then used to transfer the material to print the newspaper.
The reign was brief, though, with the introduction of the first full-blown word processors and a move to completely digital production processes occurring in the 1980s.
With computer technology able to send the paper straight to the presses, the Herald is printed at a rate of 100,000 copies an hour.
The other big change for the Herald was moving from a broadsheet to a smaller size to align with UK papers – which were moving to a “Berliner” format. In May 2007, Fairfax said it would be making the change but dumped the plans later in the year. Eventually, the change would come with the Herald switching to the smaller compact in 2013.
How did journalists’ jobs change?
When the paper first started, journalists would rely heavily on personal contacts to get stories. Partying with politicians, drinking with underworld figures and lots of knocking on doors was the day-to-day norm for the newsroom.
Reporters required a high standard of shorthand by the end of the 1800s, which meant rigorous note-taking during council meetings or court cases. They would then take the train into the office to bring the news to the newsroom, turning it into handwritten copy and sending it off to the typesetters.
The introduction of typewriters and telephones in the early 1900s would change all this, with editors able to ring journalists who were out in the field and reporters able to speak to contacts thousands of kilometres away.
And the introduction of the tape recorders rendered shorthand less critical and cadets are no longer taught the skill. Laptops are now permitted in court.
With computer technology the global news became a feature in the paper. International sport could also be reported.
And thus, the 24/7 news cycle began. Newsrooms are expected to break major news at any time of the day, with many Australian media organisations taking to live blogs that provide regular updates to rolling topics, such as COVID-19, sporting events or award shows.
Is reporting better with modern technology?
The internet has undoubtedly changed how news organisations report the news. Instead of relying on four-month-old news coming from ships in England, the Herald, which has partnerships with outlets such as The Washington Post and the Associated Press, can upload global news in an instant.
Journalists can now make a freedom-of-information request online. Reporters can also now speak to sources confidentially via secure messaging apps instead of using snail mail, and are able to access court lists online instead of travelling to the court to read the noticeboard outside.
News can also be consumed in more striking ways, such as with graphics, with podcasts and interactive journalism to engage readers on particular issues.
What could the future hold for print journalism? Is it all doom and gloom?
While Australian daily metro newspaper circulation has fallen by more than two-thirds from 2.4 million in 2003 to less than 800,000 today, more and more people are turning to the digital era. The Herald’s combined audience is now more than 9 million a month.
One of the biggest challenges is convincing younger people to pay for news with just 29 per cent of people under 35 having paid for a news service.
Another concern is the increased impact of cybercrime, which in March almost stopped the newspaper from being printed for the first time in 190 years.
What remains certain is the influence the Herald has had in marking itself firmly in Sydney’s history.