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Journalism in Newfoundland

(to 1949)


[This text was written in 1949. For the full citation see the end of the text.]

In 1806 John Ryan, an American loyalist who had moved to Newfoundland after a brief occupancy of the office of king's printer in New Brunswick , issued his proposals for the establishment of a newspaper in St. John's . His prospectus, written in the florid and ornate manner of the time, was supported by two hundred citizens, among them leaders in the spheres of religion, the military services, business, and the learned professions.


The circumstances in which Mr. Ryan desired to launch his newspaper are well described in an article by J. W. Withers, its editor in 1907 when its centenary was celebrated: "At that time neither house nor chimney nor barn was allowed to be erected, nor any business other than fishing business permitted without the sanction of the governor, and a newspaper was looked upon as a sort of dangerous innovation, a nidus of explosiveness, and a possible menace to the good order of the com­munity or worse still, even to the peace of the world." The governor was monarch of all he surveyed and, while graciously willing to permit Mr. Ryan to start his paper, was careful to impose upon him restrictions of a kind that today would be found wholly intolerable. In an imposing official document, issued under the hand and seal of Sir Erasmus Gower, permission was granted John Ryan, who had been recommended as a person of good and respectable character, "to establish a printing office in St. John's and publish a weekly paper to be entitled The Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser, provided that he will give bond in the court of sessions for two hundred pounds sterling, with good securities, that previous to the printing of each number of the said paper he shall submit the perusal of the proposed contents thereof to the Magistrates in the said court of sessions and not insert in the said paper any matter which in the opinion of the governor for the time being may tend to disturb the peace of His Majesty's subjects. But in order to avoid as much as possible the crowding of the Lower Path (one of the two streets of St. John's at that time) with persons not immediately concerned in the fishery or trade, I cannot allow him to occupy any house below the Upper Path for his intended purposes:"


Undaunted by the circumscriptions imposed in this warrant, Mr. Ryan brought his type, press, and paper stock from New Brunswick and, on August 27, 1807, supplied the 6,000 residents of St. John's with copies of the first newspaper ever to be printed and published in the colony. The present Royal Gazette is issued from the office of the king's printer and has long ceased to be a newspaper in the broad sense of that term.


Although the first newspaper ever to be printed and published in Newfoundland has had a continuous existence for more than 140 years, the history of journalism in the island is chiefly the story of many failures. Weekly newspapers were issued from time to time either to serve the interests of political groups or to constitute a platform for articulate men with ideas and opinions which other journals of the time would not print. News was of less importance to them than opinion and they were published in times of bitter controversy involving such issues as the grant of representative government, the exaltation of Newfoundland to the ranks of the self-governing colonies, the dispute over French fishing rights which persisted into the twentieth century, the construction of the trans-insular railway, and many other matters intimately related with the story of a struggling populace in a sparsely-settled and relatively poor country. The conflicts of the early nineteenth century found reflection in violent opinions in the newspapers and one of the most celebrated of Newfoundland journalists in the middle of the last century, Henry Winton, was set upon by a masked gang and suffered the loss of his ears. In format these weekly newspapers which flourished briefly on the Newfoundland scene were comparable to the London papers of the time, and much space was devoted to poetry in the classical style and to articles of considerable erudition. News came by mail and the dateline bore the name of the vessel which brought it to St. John's .


Daily journalism began in Newfoundland with the founding of the Evening Telegram in 1879 by W. J. Herder. This newspaper, like the Daily News, a morning paper, founded in 1894 by J. Alexander Robinson, has had a progressive history. These two are the only daily newspapers now [that is in 1949; for a brief description of the newspapers of Newfoundland, consult this page.] published in Newfoundland . Their mechanical equipment is completely modern, including photo-engraving departments, and they are now equipped with teletypes which take the service of the Canadian Press. They are the sole survivors of many experiments in daily journalism and as recently as thirty years ago St. John's supported no fewer than four evening and three morning papers, five of them becoming casualties of the 1930 depression.


Besides the two daily newspapers published in St. John's , Newfoundland has a number of weekly newspapers, two printed in the capital and others serving local areas, among them the two paper-making centres of Grand Falls and Corner Brook.


The promotion of circulation in New­foundland has been impeded by the dis­persal of the population and the lack of means of rapid communication. Since the development of highroad networks in the peninsula of Avalon, which has about one-third of the total population, the St. John's daily newspapers have been distributed by motor van over long distances, and there is a daily service by truck and ferry to Bell island. With the establishment of daily railway service across the country, circulation of both newspapers has been increased also in the industrial towns of the interior and the west coast. Both news­papers in St. John's have many mail subscribers, some of whom live no more than 154 miles from the capital as the plane flies but receive mail only once a week and sometimes not so often. The completion of the Newfoundland section of the trans-Canada highway is expected to facilitate the distribution of the daily newspapers from coast to coast.


The student of newspaper history in Newfoundland is sadly handicapped by the fact that two great fires in St. John 's destroyed official files of many of the journals published in the nineteenth century. Few bound volumes of any of the many weeklies printed in the most stirring period of the island's development are to be found, and people with personal recollections of the most colourful days of Newfoundland jour­nalism left no written records from which a connected history could be derived.

Back to Newfoundland Culture

Source:  A. B. PERLIN, "Journalism", in W. Stewart WALLACE, The Encyclopedia of Canada. Newfoundland Supplement , Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1949, 104p., pp. 57-59.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College