Newspapers: 1879-2000

Newfoundland's newspaper industry expanded after 1879. Advances in printing technology, a growing population, and economic improvements allowed a permanent daily press to emerge in St. John's and a weekly press in the outports. Professionalism also increased, as newspapers began to separate the business and editorial sides of their operations. By the end of the 1920s, many publications had severed their ties with political parties and religious denominations. The shift toward a more neutral reporting style intensified after 1934, when the Commission of Government assumed power and temporarily ended party politics in the colony.

The Evening Telegram, 1879
The Evening Telegram, 1879
The Evening Telegram 1.8 (11 April 1879): 1.

After Confederation, the St. John's daily press assumed the role of government opposition. This was particularly true of the Evening Telegram, which published popular columns by Harold Horwood and Ray Guy criticising Liberal Premier Joseph Smallwood's policies and style of governing. The post-Confederation era also saw a rise in the number of weekly community newspapers in the province. From 1970 on, multinational companies gained increasing control over the province's newspaper press and fewer independent and family-run journals circulated.

St. John's Dailies and Outport Weeklies

When the Evening Telegram began publication on 3 April 1879, it marked the beginning of a permanent daily press in St. John's. There were eight other newspapers in the town at that time, but none published on a daily basis. The Telegram was established by local printer William James Herder, who had worked for The Courier until it folded in 1878. The Telegram began as a four-page paper with a print run of 500, but by the end of June had doubled in size and circulation. A variety of factors contributed to its success.

St. John's boasted a relatively large and growing population. It was the seat of government and a centre for trade and commerce, giving local newspapers easy access to vital advertising money and government printing contracts. Advances in technology also allowed for faster and less expensive printing. Importantly, the Telegram sold for only a penny an issue and was possibly the first newspaper in Newfoundland to do so. Political debate surrounding the building of a trans-island railway also provided the paper with an interesting issue that could attract and sustain an engaged readership.

The railway debate prompted a second daily to enter circulation in 1882. The Evening Mercury was established by the businessman J.E.A. Furneaux, who supported development. In contrast, the Telegram was critical of the government's plan. They were joined by a third daily in 1894, when J.A. Robinson gave up his teaching career to establish the Daily News. Editorial debate between the three papers was lively and often divided along party lines. The Evening Mercury was a Conservative newspaper until 1890, when it shifted support to the Liberals and changed its name to the Evening Herald. By then, the Evening Telegram generally supported Liberal policies, while the Daily News backed the Conservative party.

Weekly newspapers in St. John's found it difficult to compete with the popular dailies and by the end of the century there were only two: the Royal Gazette, established in 1807 as Newfoundland's first newspaper, and the Newfoundland Trade Review, a quasi-government journal founded in 1892.

As the weeklies disappeared from St. John's, however, they sprang up in some outport communities. This was made possible by advances in printing, transportation, and communication technology, as well as by the emergence of a mining industry on the island's northeast coast that promised future prosperity. Also, outports began to acquire printing presses from St. John's businesses as they upgraded to more advanced equipment.

Twillingate Sun, 1880
The Twillingate Sun, 1880
The Twillingate Sun 1.1 (24 June 1880): 1.

On 24 June 1880, the Twillingate Sun and Northern Weekly Advertiser became the island's first newspaper circulating outside of St. John's or Conception Bay. Published by Jabez P. Thompson, who had previously worked for the Harbour Grace Standard, the Twilligate Sun printed local and foreign news, legislative proceedings, letters to the editor, advertisements, and creative writing. In 1886, the Weekly Record began circulating in Trinity, followed by the Trinity Enterprise in 1909. The Record was published by David C. Webber, who was later elected Liberal MHA for Trinity in 1889. The Enterprise was established by printer F. J. Brady. On the island's west coast, the Western Star began publishing on 4 April 1900 at Birchy Cove. It circulated first as a semiweekly, with weekly runs in the winter, but became a year-round weekly in 1902.

Outport newspapers faced challenges that did not exist in urban areas. "Getting out the paper in those days was no cinch," wrote A.L. Barrett, Western Star editor from 1912-1941. "The breakdown in transportation in winter frequently caught us short of newsprint which at that time we had to import. Several times we had to substitute coloured paper, on two occasions wrapper had to be used, and twice, supplies had to be brought in by dog teams, once over the Topsails and another time by way of Pork-aux-Basques" (18).

In 1910, the Fishermen's Advocate began circulating in outport areas, although it was based in St. John's. Established by William Coaker, president of the Fishermen's Protective Union (FPU), the Advocate quickly became one of the most influential and controversial papers on the island. A voice for Coaker and the union, it printed FPU propaganda and meeting proceedings alongside practical advice for fishermen and foreign, local, and legislative news.

New Era for Newspaper Press

The nature of newspaper journalism was beginning to change by the turn of the twentieth century. Until then, newspapers in Newfoundland were typically run by a single person who handled every stage of production: writing, editing, soliciting advertisements, and printing. It was conventional for newspapers to reflect the political and religious beliefs of their publisher/editor. But by the end of the 1880s, many of the original publishers had retired or died and a new generation of journalists was taking over. The business and editorial sides of production became increasingly separated as different people assumed the roles of proprietor, editor, and printer. Each of the St. John's dailies employed one staff reporter by 1900 and two by 1920.

The Fishermen's Advocate, 1912
The Fishermen's Advocate, 1912
The Fishermen's Advocate 3.30 (27 July 1912): 1.

By then, newspapers had become far less partisan and favoured a more neutral style of reporting. This had intensified during the First World War, when normal party politics were suspended and a coalition National Government took over in 1917. Newspapers also changed in appearance. Modern printing presses allowed for larger sheets, cleaner type, and wider columns. Advances in photo engraving and other graphic technologies added to the visual appeal, while large front-page headlines grabbed readers' attention.

The last vestiges of the old-time partisan press disappeared after the Commission of Government took power in 1934 and ended party politics in Newfoundland. The public could not attend Commission meetings and reporters had to rely on printed communiques for information. Newspapers responded to the lack of local political news by printing more foreign news, sports, and syndicated columns.

The National Convention debates of 1946-48, however, provided the press with a compelling issue: whether or not Newfoundland should join Canada. The legitimate press remained largely neutral in its coverage, prompting the confederate and anti-confederate parties to establish their own newspapers. Both the Independent and the Confederate stopped publishing in July 1948, the same month Newfoundlanders and Labradorians voted in favour of Confederation.

Post-Confederation Press

After Confederation, Newfoundland papers became linked to the Canadian Press, a private, not-for-profit cooperative news agency that distributed national and international news to journalistic establishments across the country.

The Evening Telegram emerged as the most dominant newspaper in St. John's during the 1950s. During that decade, it doubled its circulation to more than 60,000, expanded its distribution to a range of 300 miles from the city, and opened a bureau in central Newfoundland. A major factor contributing to its success was Harold Horwood's controversial "Political Notebook" column, the first in Newfoundland to openly criticize Smallwood's Liberal administration. Throughout the 1950s, the Telegram faced at least three threats of libel from the government and one court case, which the judge dismissed on the first day after awarding costs to the newspaper.

The paper had been run by members of the Herder family since its establishment in 1879, and they remained staunch defenders of their reporters and the paper's editorial freedom. The "Political Notebook" ended in 1958, but in 1965 Telegram reporter Ray Guy began a daily column that attacked the government through political satire. Guy's writing became a major force in Newfoundland journalism and political life, and was widely credited with helping to end Smallwood's almost 23-year reign as premier in 1971. By then, the paper had a province-wide circulation, although it was not always readily available in all areas.

For this reason, the Montreal Gazette was more widely read in Labrador than the Telegram until at least the late 1960s. By 1980, three weeklies were circulating in Labrador: the Aurora, established by the Robinson Blackmore Printing Company in 1969 to service Labrador West; the Labradorian, established at Happy Valley-Goose Bay in 1974 by the Labradorian Printers; and the Northern Pen, established in 1980 by Bernard Bromley and distributed in southern Labrador and the Northern Peninsula.

Other community newspapers also sprang up across the island after Confederation. Most were published by the Blackmore Printing Company (Robinson-Blackmore after 1968), which entered the newspaper business in 1936 with the Grand Falls Advertiser. In 1958 it established the Gander Beacon, followed by the Lewisporte Pilot (1961), the Springdale News (1965), the Clarenville Packet (1968), and the Compass in Trinity and Conception Bay (1969). More followed in the 1970s. The Western Star moved from Birchy Cove to Corner Brook in 1941 and became a daily newspaper in 1954. It entered into direct news sharing with the Telegram.

In the last three decades of the 1900s, large multinational companies began to gain control over Newfoundland newspapers. In 1970, the Herders sold the Evening Telegram to the Thompson Newspaper Group, one of the world's largest media companies. Concerned with profit, the company began to reduce staff through attrition and cut spending in other areas. Advertising space was increased, leaving less room for news and current affairs. Horwood later wrote that "the financial axe work that began the day after the Thompson takeover soon had its effect. The print job deteriorated, and the paper began to look cheap" (45). Guy was also discontented with the paper's new direction and briefly left the publication for 86 days in 1971-72.

Corporate ownership, however, did not affect the Telegram's popularity. Unable to compete, the Daily News went out of business in 1984, leaving the province with two daily newspapers: the Telegram in St. John's and the Western Star in Corner Brook. On 28 September 1986, the St. John's Sunday Express circulated as an independent weekly. Although respected for its investigative reporting and high journalistic standards, the paper could not compete in an increasingly commercialized industry and ceased publishing in 1991. In 2002, the Western Star lost its independent status, after it was bought by the Montreal-based Transcontinental Inc., one of the largest printers in North America. The company also bought the Telegram in 2004, which remained the most widely read newspaper in the province. By then, however, newspapers were facing competition from a new medium: the Internet.