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The Examiner: a story of survival over 180 years

When The Examiner was first published on Saturday, March 12, 1842, Launceston was a town of about 10,000 residents, with half the population being either convicts or former convicts.

Tasmania was a British penal colony and still called Van Diemen’s Land.

Military, convict and government buildings dominated Launceston and the gallows, treadmill and female factory in Paterson Street were among the first things new arrivals saw as their ship sailed into Home Reach.

Ships from England were bringing in necessary supplies for the growing community while the fertile lands around Launceston were producing wool, grain and other goods for export.

Wharves and warehouses on the North Esk River were the commercial heart of the town.

In his book Launceston, History of an Australian City, John Reynolds writes that despite a growing population the economy of Van Diemen’s Land was entering a period of depression that would last 40 years.

He describes the establishment of The Examiner as “a brave venture” because Launceston already had several newspapers and only a small population.

The two main newspapers were the Launceston Advertiser, established by John Pascoe Fawkner in 1829, and the more outspoken Cornwall Chronicle, established in 1835 and owned and edited by William Lushington Goodwin.

Goodwin was a former ship’s captain whose newspaper was in financial trouble in early 1842 but managed to survive because, as Reynolds notes, he had a flair for the journalism of the times.

“Neither paper seems to have been wholly satisfying to the reading public nor were their journalistic standards high; Goodwin satisfied those whose fare included biting criticism of men and institutions.”

The Examiner's founders were young Scottish merchant James Aikenhead and printer Jonathan Waddell, with the support of members of the Button family and Congregationalist minister John West who has always been recognised as the driving force in its establishment.

They originally called their newspaper the Launceston Examiner Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser. To its readers it became known simply as The Examiner.

Jonathan Waddell had arrived in the colony in 1833 from England and built breweries at Longford and Launceston with fellow immigrant William Button. James Aikenhead had emigrated from Scotland in 1834.

All were members of the congregation of the Reverend John West who was 29 when the Colonial Missionary Society sent him to the colony of Van Diemen’s Land in 1839.

John Reynolds writes that the shrewd 28-year-old James Aikenhead must have recognised the asset of John West’s pen.

“Bad times and new worrying public problems were arising, and young Aikenhead sensed the demand for a better informed, more penetrating, intellectually founded criticism of people and institutions than the Chronicle or Advertiser could give.”

The Examiner’s first home was a room in Henry Dowling's stationery shop in Brisbane Street. They used an old manual press that was smuggled into the colony as brewery equipment to avoid alerting their competitors.

Reynolds writes that West's leading articles attracted immediate attention because he was probably the most competent literary craftsman in the colony.

“Like his sermons they were addressed to the public and could be followed by all literate people; they were appreciated by the educated for their fine turn of phrase and informed style.”

The Examiner was a success from the start, as Reynolds notes, because as well as West's leading articles Aikenhead understood the kind of news his readers wanted.

The Reverend West’s use of The Examiner’s news columns in the campaign to end the transportation of British convicts helped unite the Australian colonies and paved the way for Federation.

The Examiner is the sole survivor of Launceston’s newspaper war of the 1840s and is Australia's third-oldest newspaper after the Sydney Morning Herald (1831) and the Geelong Advertiser (1840).

James Aikenhead, founder of the Launceston Examiner.

In 1847 The Examiner absorbed one of its rivals, the Launceston Advertiser, and a year later moved to larger premises in Charles Street and installed a steam-driven press.

The newspaper was relocated to purpose-built offices in Paterson Street in 1855 where it remained for 161 years before moving to Cimitiere Street in 2015.

The Examiner started out as a bi-weekly newspaper, printed on Saturday and Wednesday afternoons, until 1860 when it changed to morning publishing. It became a daily newspaper (Monday to Saturday) in 1877.

On the newspaper’s 54th birthday 1896 it became the first printery in Tasmania to be lit by electricity and have type produced by Linotype machines that replaced hand setting and revolutionised newspaper production.

From 1901 to 1936 it published The Weekly Courier, a magazine that today is a priceless resource of local, national and overseas photographs of the period.

For its first 97 years the front page of The Examiner was dedicated to advertising. That changed on Monday, September 3, 1939, when the news that Britain and Germany were at war was splashed across Page 1.

In 1924 the first edition of The Saturday Evening Express was published and The Examiner became a seven-day newspaper. The Express was revamped as the Sunday Examiner in 1984.

When computerisation came to newspaper production in the 1970s, The Examiner was among the first in Australia to embrace the rapidly evolving technology.

Colour printing was introduced in the 1980s and The Examiner launched its first news website in 1997 and in 2000 made its entire daily content available online.

Today The Examiner is published in hardcopy and online with breaking news posted to social media and emailed to subscribers. Words and photographs are supported by video, audio and live feeds.

Seventy years ago then editor R. J. Williams wrote that The Examiner had recorded the news of Tasmania, and the world, through prosperity and depression and through war and peace.

He also noted that, “The Examiner for many years now has kept pace with newspaper development, modernising its equipment and bringing up to date its presentation of the world's news at every opportunity.”

And it still does.

It is hard to know what James Aikenhead would make of The Examiner’s newsroom today but fair to say he’d be extremely proud the newspaper he founded 180 year ago had survived and flourished.

First published in The Examiner's 180th Anniversary Supplement on Saturday 12 March 2022


The Examiner newspaper archive and Trove (National Library of Australia)

Launceston: History of an Australian City (John Reynolds, 1969)

The Usefulness of John West: Dissent and difference in the Australian colonies (Patricia Fitzgerald Ratcliff, 2003)

Not Just An Anaesthetist: The remarkable life of Dr William Russ Pugh (John Paull, 2013)

Flotsam and Jetsam: Floating fragments of life in England and Tasmania (Henry Button, 1909)


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