There was an age, not a generation ago, when local news was circulated by suburban and regional newspapers. The lifeblood of such publications were the “classifieds”, commonly referred to as “Hatches, Matches and Dispatches” or births, deaths and marriages. There were also notices of engagement, anniversaries and obituaries. Goods and chattels were advertised for sale, rent or hire, positions declared vacant and notices listed. Advertisers might announce themselves open for business or court notices would appear signalling bankruptcies, divorce or legal proceedings. In fact, the whole gamut of human experience was laid bare for all to read.
Of course, there were stories of local interest, collected by an editor/reporter and usually supplied by those who were the subject of the report. This handy arrangement was not only convenient and cheap, it ensured the stories were read and in so doing drew the readers’ attention to the adjacent advertising that paid for the paper to be printed.
As those who submitted stories were aware, a clear photograph accompanying the text, together with a caption naming names, helped get the story to the top of the editor’s pile and garnered further attention from the public readership.
There is a tendency, however, to decry these publications as “local rags” and regard them as little more than gossip sheets, lacking gravitas or import. This is a misplaced disparagement since the best quality paper was traditionally made from linen rags, while for the historian at least, this type of information is invaluable as an indication of social values.
What editors understood, perhaps intuitively, was the ongoing attractiveness of trivia. Rather than being of little value, trivia could be endlessly employed to keep the readership entertained, if not always fully informed. The aphorism, that everyone in a small town knows who’s doing what, but they still buy a newspaper to find out who gets caught, has more than an element of truth.
Trivia is inherently interesting because it affirms what we know about ourselves, but don’t like to admit it, preferring to recognise our same flaws in others.
The word “trivia” itself has an interesting history. One story suggests it comes from the conjoining of two Latin words: tri meaning three and via -road. It is said that in Roman times people met at the crossroads outside town to gossip and pass on news.
Local newspapers are rapidly being replaced by nationally syndicated on-line publications. There is scant local content in these and any localised reference is generally an adverse one, identifying a place where there has been some tragic incident or a continuing problem. This has the effect of stereotyping people or places because there is no context to these events. Without this, the stories are generic tropes of misery and misdeeds. I would argue that this creates an over-simplified image of the world, blurring our perception and dumbing down society as a whole. In being less able to relate personally to worldwide troubles, we become less empathic towards our neighbours.
Canada Bay has also experienced the decline and disappearance of a number of local newspapers. Who now recalls The Concord Recorder, Aeroplane Press, The Western Weekly. The Glebe, The Courier, Five Dock District News or the Village Voice?
These journals provided a minute record of what was happening in the area, reflecting its concerns and outlook which were quite different to what may have been making news in other parts of Sydney. The difference was civic pride; pride in what was being achieved, recognising local heroes and projecting hope for the future. These sentiments are conspicuously absent in Sydney based or state-wide papers. Such is the rapidity of the current news cycle that only the most cataclysmic events, the most egregious acts and the most tragic circumstances are reported. No wonder so many people no longer read newspapers and rely on 30 second sound-bites and truncated banner headlines.
The erosion of local newspapers has seen the amalgamation of many mastheads along with the closing and re-opening of others under different names. While we like to think that these papers have been preserved by the National Library and other statuary repositories, the sad fact is that many editions and titles have disappeared, often without trace of ever having been published. The National Library’s “Trove” has done a splendid job preserving as many titles as it can, but as any family history sleuth will affirm, there are conspicuous gaps in our records.
Our only local survivor is The Weekly Times, affectionately referred to as the TWIT. It cheekily describes itself as a campaigning, crusading, truth-seeking, death-defying, Aussie battler-aligned, one-eyed-tiger-led news organisation dedicated to Sydney’s north-west. It is one of the few remaining independently run community newspapers and turns 100 years old in 2021.
The paper circulates in Ryde and parts of Canada Bay including Concord West. One of its recent editions featured our own museum director, Lois Michel, who was made a Member of the Order of Australia in the Australia Day Honours List for her fifty years of service to the Concord Historical Society, now re-named the Canada Bay Heritage Society.
The CBHA archives include a collection of local newspapers going back more than fifty years, and while they are by no means complete, they are a record that does not exist elsewhere. It is hoped that at some time these may be digitised, so that they can be made available to historians and genealogists alike.