Newspapers: 1806-1879

On 22 September 1806, Governor Sir Erasmus Gower granted printer John Ryan a licence to publish the colony's first newspaper. At the time, no publication could circulate without government approval. This was an important development, but the Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser was (and remained) a government mouthpiece devoted to proclamations, public notices, and advertisements. From 1814, independent presses and newspapers were allowed to operate. Print journalism expanded and by mid-century there were about 21 newspapers.

Most 19th-century newspapers were overtly partisan and divided along denominational lines. They usually published on a weekly basis and catered to the mercantile and political elite concentrated at St. John's and Conception Bay. This began to change after 1879, when technological change, a growing population, and rising literacy rates helped nurture a weekly press in the outports and a daily press in St. John's.

The Royal Gazette
The Royal Gazette
Courtesy of the Provincial Reference Library, Arts and Culture Centre, St. John's, NL.

Changing Society

Newfoundland's economy flourished in the early 1800s. Warfare in Europe gave the colony a virtual monopoly over the international fish trade and made it an attractive destination for migrants from England and Ireland. Prosperous and populous, Newfoundland acquired new institutions and services to accommodate its rapidly changing society. Medical and educational facilities became more widespread, churches gained influence, and a postal service began operating in 1805.

A group of St. John's merchants suggested to Governor Gower in 1806 that a newspaper should be established to encourage trade and contribute to the town's social development. As a result, Gower authorized John Ryan to set up a printing office and newspaper. An American-born United Empire Loyalist, he had recently arrived in St. John's from New Brunswick, where he had operated two newspapers.

The weekly Royal Gazette began publication on 27 August 1807. Its four pages contained government notices, shipping advertisements, and some local and foreign news. Poetry and short essays were sometimes printed on the back page. The paper's masthead bore the royal coat of arms and the motto "Fear God: Honor the King." Ryan's licence stipulated that he could only publish content approved by the governor's office.

He maintained a seven-year monopoly, as successive governors actively opposed the establishment of additional newspapers. In 1810, Ryan's son Michael failed to obtain permission from Governor Sir John Duckworth to establish a second newspaper. Three years later, Governor Sir Richard Keats turned down similar proposals from Alexander Haire and Robert Lee, local printers of shipping papers and handbills.

Emergence of a Sanctioned Free Press

Circumstances changed in 1814, when crown lawyers determined that the governor did not have the power to prevent the establishment of local newspapers and printing presses. Haire and Lee founded the Newfoundland Mercantile Journal sometime in 1814 or 1815 (its earliest issues have not survived), which marked the beginning of free press in the colony. This was followed by the Newfoundland Sentinel and General Commercial Register in 1818, edited by John Ryan's son Lewis; the Public Ledger and Newfoundland General Advertiser in 1820, edited by Henry Winton; and The Newfoundlander in 1827, edited by John Shea. Two papers also appeared outside of St. John's: the Harbor Grace and Carbonear Weekly Journal in 1828, published by Thomas W. Ball, and the Conception Bay Mercury in 1829, published by W.S. Comer.

The Public Ledger
The Public Ledger
Courtesy of the Provincial Reference Library, Arts and Culture Centre, St. John's, NL

The press remained largely confined to St. John's and Conception Bay until the late-1800s. Densely populated hubs of government, commercial, and military activity, these areas could easily sustain a newspaper industry. In contrast, rural areas were sparsely populated and characterized by high illiteracy rates. Improvements in education, transportation, and technology would not make an outport press possible until the 1880s. Until then, the readership generally consisted of the wealthy and educated urban elite.

Despite a limited audience, early newspapers provided a forum for public discourse never before experienced in Newfoundland. They fostered political awareness and made government officials more accountable than before. Editors debated one another and published letters from the public. Government authorities, however, remained nervous of the emerging free press and strictly enforced English libel laws, which included blasphemy, defamation, obscenity, and anything that might threaten the social order. In 1821, for example, libel charges prompted Lewis Ryan to flee the colony and shut down the Sentinel.

Reporting Reform

That same decade, the reform movement gave the Newfoundland press its first major journalistic issue. Newspapers played an active role in the debate over whether or not to establish representative government in the colony. The Sentinel (until it folded), Public Ledger, and Newfoundlander supported the movement, while the Royal Gazette shed its typically nonpartisan stance to oppose it. Lively and opinionated editorials attracted numerous letters from the public. After the British government granted Newfoundland representative government in 1832, the press continued to encourage spirited public debate, this time centred on the colony's first general election, set for November of that year.

The Newfoundlander
The Newfoundlander
Courtesy of the Provincial Reference Library, Arts and Culture Centre, St. John's, NL.

As campaigning unfolded, a struggle for political power soon emerged in St. John's between the English Protestants, who traditionally governed the colony, and the Irish Roman Catholics, who accounted for slightly more than half of the island's population. Religious and political issues merged on the public stage as candidates and clergy tried to influence voters. The press also took sides and this helped to shape the nature of newspaper coverage for decades to come. Newspapers became polarized along denominational and political lines and were labelled according to the religious and political stands of their publishers and editors. Winton, for example, was frequently accused of using the Public Ledger to spread anti-Catholic sentiment and to help keep political power in the hands of the established Protestant elite.

By the end of the 1832 general election, the press was entrenched in Newfoundland society. It had acquired an engaged readership and could now look to the local legislature as a source of ongoing news. Soon other newspapers began to circulate. Most were weeklies and all remained confined to St. John's and Conception Bay.

Newspaper Content and Appearance

The colony's newspapers closely resembled those published in Britain. They were typically printed on a single sheet, measuring 13 inches by 17 inches, and folded once to make four pages. According to historian Maudie Whelan, "Most carried extracts from British and American newspapers, parliamentary and other reports about on-going disputes and international wars, usually on the front and back pages. Pages two and three contained local news, unsigned editorials, and letters to the editor, almost always signed with a pseudonym. The inside pages also carried local legislative reports, occasional brief accounts of fish catches, vessel reports, church notices, and school reports. Poetry and serial fiction had their place, and a minimum of space was afforded to births, deaths and marriages" ("The Newspaper Press" 46-47).

Politics and religion remained staples of the Newfoundland press, but other issues, such as temperance and poverty, also gained in significance after the 1830s. The campaign to establish responsible government received attention in the early 1850s, but not nearly as much as the vigorous confederation debates of the 1860s. Newspapers on both sides published large amounts of propaganda. Some were created largely to support or oppose the issue, such as the anti-confederate Morning Chronicle, published by St. John's merchant Charles Fox Bennett in 1862, and the confederate Comet, published by the Bonavista MHA John Thomas Burton in 1869.

The debate leading up to the 1869 confederation election prompted some papers to enter daily production. Demand for news was strong and the leaders of both political camps recognized a daily press would be a powerful tool in swaying public support. The first was the St. John's Daily News and Newfoundland Journal of Commerce, a confederate journal that ran from 1860 to 1869 and was established by Henry Winton's sons, Robert and Francis. The Public Ledger maintained a daily circulation for a few months in 1868, and the Morning Chronicle was issued every day until it ceased publication in 1873. By then all the dailies had either ceased publication or reverted to a weekly status, largely due to technological limitations, which made it expensive and time consuming to publish on a daily basis.

However, the newspapers of the 1860s were the forerunners of a permanent daily press that would emerge in St. John's in 1879 and reshape the newspaper industry. By then, more sophisticated printing presses, an expanding readership, and increased revenues from advertisers made it possible for newspapers to meet the increased cost and labour demands of daily publication. These same factors also made it possible for a weekly outport press to begin operating in the 1880s.

Video: Early Newspapers in Newfoundland