Historian Rod Kirkpatrick chose Country Conscience as the title for his history of the NSW provincial press 1841-1995.
At a time when so many country newspapers have suspended publication, it seems appropriate to tell a little of the rich story of the newspaper press across Northern NSW. Rod's book title is well chosen.
The first newspaper in Northern NSW, the Hunter River Gazette, came off a little timber hand-operated press in Maitland on 11 December 1841.
With a population of 2,768, Maitland with its nearby river port at Morpeth was the North's largest town, servicing the rapidly expanding pastoral occupation across the North.
Thomas Strode, the Gazette's proprietor, had been mechanical superintendent on the Sydney Herald and then co-founder of the PortPhillip Gazette with George Arden.
The Gazette failed, ceasing publication in June 1842. This failure was not due so much to local factors, but to problems with the PortPhillip Gazette that forced Strode to return to Melbourne.
Despite the Gazette's short life, it illustrates many of the features of our early newspapers.
It began because local merchants and others saw a newspaper as necessary to communicate with customers and advocate local interests. Strode himself was a printer not a journalist, a necessary requirement when skills were scarce; the proprietor had to physically produce the paper.
Strode also faced multiple challenges in selling advertisements, gaining subscriptions and then producing and distributing the paper. Finally, he saw his role in grand terms, in admonishing the unworthy against temptation, in protecting the underdog and in educating the population.
Mind you, despite these lofty ambitions, Strode was not immune to the temptation to use his columns to pursue personal vendettas, to assert his views!
Maitland was still growing as the Gazette closed. This left a market gap that needed to be filled.
There was a first abortive attempt that failed, but then on 7 January 1843 came the launch of the Maitland Mercury, the North's first great paper and journal of record.
I say great paper and journal of record advisedly. The Maitland Mercury was the only newspaper in a vast if thinly populated area. It saw its reporting role not just in local terms, but in terms of the broader area it serviced.
It was also very profitable.