THE Land has been in existence for 108 years and 5000 editions (with the February 14, 2019 issue), which is testimony to the resilience of generations of staff and their determination to serve the rural community of NSW and beyond.
Its founding fathers set out in 1911 to create a newspaper with the clout to ensure the voice of farmers couldn’t be drowned out by city-based politicians, mainstream media and lobbyists wanting to put their interests above agriculture and country people.
The Land was launched by the Farmers and Settlers Association of NSW as its official mouthpiece and key weapon to achieve its goals of carving up large pastoral runs for closer settlement, the expansion of the wheat industry and the creation of a specialist political party for the bush (the Country Party).
The Land Newspaper Company Ltd lost £3148 (about $384,000 today) in its first two years but by 1916 was making profits.
The newspaper came close to financial collapse in the early 1930s at the height of the Great Depression but was rescued by a new young managing editor, Harry Budd (later Sir Harry), who, ironically, was still at the helm when The Land was on the financial brink again in September, 1970.
The catalyst for the financial strife this time was a new printing plant at Lidcombe in Sydney’s west which turned into a loss-making nightmare as soon as the presses started rolling in mid-1969. Strikes and union unrest were at the root of the crisis.
John Fairfax and Sons, publishers of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Melbourne Age, came to the rescue by buying a 25pc stake in the company in September, 1970.
This stake was bought by John B. Fairfax, his brother, Tim, and other Vincent Fairfax family members when Warwick Fairfax junior launched an ill-fated move to privatise John Fairfax Ltd, the family’s historic media company, in 1987.
It proved a shrewd decision because The Land mushroomed rapidly into a rural and regional media empire named Rural Press Ltd and by the time the company was listed on the stock exchange in 1989 the Fairfaxes owned more than 50pc.
The Lidcombe printing site was offloaded in late 1972 and John Fairfax and Sons proved helpful once again by leasing The Land the ground floor (which contained a printing press) and the first floor of a company-owned building in Chippendale in Sydney’s inner west.
Sir Harry Budd retired in June, 1971, and was replaced by John Parker who had been in charge of the failed Lidcombe printing adventure which he thought would cost him his job. .
Budd was an innovative editor who changed the format of The Land from a broadsheet to a tabloid in 1932 and appointed The Land’s first full-time photographer, Angus Spence (1931), and first country-based journalist, Joe McMenamin (1946).
The host of country-based journalists and photographers like Neale Edwards and Michael Petey who followed them helped fill the newspaper with country faces and on-farm stories.
John Parker also revitalised The Land, adding a magazine section on August 24, 1972, following by a sweeping revamp of the markets pages on January 25, 1973.
He was the chief architect of the growth of The Land from a single newspaper into a publishing giant renamed Rural Press Ltd in 1981. He also shifted the headquarters of the company to North Richmond.
Rural Press was merged with Fairfax Media in 2007 which in turn was bought by Nine last year.
Technology ended tyranny of distance
Computers and digital technology have taken over the production of The Land from the gathering of words and pictures by journalists and photographers to the finished product rolling off the presses.
The introduction of this new technology gathered pace from the 1980s, the decade when The Land journalists working in remote locations started to write and file their copy via landline telephones on what became the forerunner of today’s laptops.
The first was the Portabubble followed by the Tandy. Before their arrival journalists wrote their stories on manual typewriters using small sheets of copy paper (about two sentences per sheet).
Reporters based in the bush would then bag up their stories, along with film from their cameras, and head to the nearest airport to send their work to head office in Sydney and, from 1983, to the Hawkesbury (first Windsor and then North Richmond).
The advent of digital cameras in the late 1990s allowed photographers to email their pictures direct to editors. The first digital picture on The Land front cover was on April 8, 1999.
Computer and digital technology has allowed the removal of layers of the workforce which traditionally produced newspapers including sub-editors, proof readers, compositors and printing floor staff.
Using the NewsNow production system The Land journalists and editors can now build and deliver pages direct to the press production hub or publish stories online from a remote location using their laptop and mobile phones.
The Land has also been a leader in printing technology and was one of the first newspapers to switch from broadsheet to a tabloid in 1932 using a new rotary press capable of printing 24,000 48-page newspapers an hour.
The company was also one of the first to use web offset printing. The Land is now printed at North Richmond on a Manroland Geoman press capable of printing 40,000 copies an hour. The printing and publishing process is highly automated.
Setting the ag style
Of all the staff at The Land, it is our photographers who most farmers meet and who have been the face of the paper, as Michael Petey learned through his 35-year career (1980-2015).
Many remember him for his French accent, having been born in Nancy, France, and growing up in the French, and then Belgian Congo.
In 1980, he brought with him an NRMA map of NSW and within five years had coloured in every road.
“Every time I went bush, I had a highlighter and I used to fill all the roads in,” he said.
Michael joined the team under then chief photographer, Neale Edwards, who was, at that time, already well known throughout rural NSW.
This was the year before the company name would change from The Land to Rural Press, in 1981.
Colour photos had to be taken as long as two weeks before they were needed for print.
The negatives were sent to Kodak, Melbourne, for a process called colour separation which was necessary for printing, with a turn-around as as long as 10 days.
Black and white film was a lot simpler. The photographers processed this in the dark room in the office, usually done early in the week before they hit the road again to take more photos.
“I used to ask the editor, ‘are you going to need this in black and white, or colour?’,” explaining that the photos printed in black and white reproduced better if also photographed in black and white.
They would carry two cameras, one for each type of film.
The Land remained predominantly black and white well into the 1990s, with 1997 the first year the bulk of the paper was printed in colour – also the same year Michael bought his first digital camera.
This was a one megapixel Kodak, for which he paid $1200. However, the first digital image didn’t appear on the cover until April 8, 1999, with a photo of farmer Michael Grogan, "Illawong", Binalong.
In 1999, The Land began rolling out digital cameras for not only its two photographers but also its journalists.
Another feather in Michael’s cap was snapping The Land’s first cover photo taken with a drone, which was published on September 11, 2014, of beef producer, Richard Webb, “Wonga”, Tarana.
Along with farm visits, forums and shows, Michael recalls covering many a flood and fire, but said the trips he enjoyed most were when he headed out west, such as for the Border Stations special feature – those trips also being among the rare occasions when he would travel with a journalist.
“My work was 90 per cent on my own,” he said, the editors instructing him to call as he finished each job to get new instructions.
“I’d often use a public phone – I couldn’t wait to be back in a motel in the evening.”
By the time Michael was hired, The Land had introduced pool cars.
However, it was a different situation for the previous chief photographer, Neale Edwards.
“He told me (in 1980) he’d already been there for at least 20 years – he said there never used to be pool cars, so he used to go bush by train,” Michael said.
Neale, who retired in 2000 after 45 years at The Land, had the job down pat long before a young Michael Petey arrived on the scene.
He joined the team in 1955, initially working under established photographer, Angus Spence, who had been at The Land since 1931 and would retire in 1962.
Spence – who also travelled the bush by train, or hitching a ride – was responsible for the majority of the 400 images in The Land’s Heritage Photographic Collection.
He was described by former editor, Vernon Graham, in the paper’s 2011 centenary feature, as “a little man with a big passion for the bush and country people”, as well as a “fixture on the country show circuit and Sydney Royal”.
Spence retired before current Dubbo journalist, Mark Griggs, hit the agricultural reporting scene in November 1965.
Griggsy, as he is known throughout rural NSW and who also worked at the old Country Life, recalls “Neale was the guy that refined agricultural photography”.
“I believe he turned rural photography into an art form. Michael picked up the style and refined it further (but) … I learnt a hell of lot from him (Neale).”
“That’s the other thing about Neale – he was the one that introduced 35 millimetre film to The Land.
“In the mid 1970s, Neale was good friends with the photographic staff at Sydney Morning Herald, which had gone to 35mm cameras.
“Neale started with a Pentax 35mm, but when George Lipman (then SMH chief photographer) went to Nikon, Neale convinced John Parker, who was general manager (of Rural Press) of the day, of the value of the 35mm and how it was going to revolutionise photography, especially press photography.”
He won the argument and was set up with Nikon gear, and never looked back.
But ultimately, the job was all about the many faces captured by our photographers in those particular moments through our pages – it has always been a talking point to have your photo in The Land.
"People remember you more than you remember them – they didn’t have too many French photographers coming to take their photo,” Michael remarked.
“I enjoyed my working life. That’s why I stayed so long on the job.”
Our current photographer is Rachael Webb, based in Dubbo, who grew up on a farm at Tooraweenah and has so far clocked up just over five years on the job.
The changing pages
If one thing has remained since The Land’s inception in 1911, it has continued to be the voice of the bush.
It is a newspaper, a trade journal, a place for discussion and a gathering of ideas.
But a lot has also changed in 5000 editions.
Former editor, Peter Austin, who still writes property stories for the paper, as well as the Peppercorn column, says a lot of The Land’s relevance through the years has been closely tied to the issues of the day.
Its success, meanwhile, also tied to the ebbs and flows of agricultural businesses and services.
A few of the big issues just from Mr Austin’s stint at The Land alone (1978 to the late 2007) include the farm debt crisis of the 1980s, the birth of the Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation in 1984 and the associated introduction of Computer Aided Livestock Marketing, the Carr government’s crackdown on land clearing in 1995, the collapse of wool’s floor price scheme of the early 1990s and the ensuing rise of the soft rolling skin revolution, the introduction of Meat Standards Australia grading and the Ovine Johnes disease debacle of the late 1990s.
“When I joined The Land in 1978, marketing boards were still much in evidence, controlling the marketing and the price of all grains," Mr Austin said.
“Some of these boards were given space for regular columns in the paper.
“There was the Grain Elevators Board responsible for grain handling, and of course the Australian Wool Corporation controlling wool prices, and all matters relating to the governance and policies of these authorities were regularly up for debate.”
He said since the deregulation of commodity marketing and the privatisation of the former Grain Elevators Board (now GrainCorp) and other bodies, many of those debates had faded.
Fellow former editor, and still a journalist with the paper, Vernon Graham, said the biggest change he’s seen “is perhaps the way farmers are now under attack” – something he never thought he’d see reach such a heightened level.
“The issues we’re writing about now are every bit as important but perhaps a bit harder to get into,” he said.
Water, energy, social licence, right to farm, climate change, land use, activism, loss of representation, the rise of technology and the lack of communications are just some of the issues seldom seen two or three decades ago.
Another big change, which affected the paper financially as well as in terms of reporting, has been the rationalisation of the farm machinery industry, Mr Austin said.
“When I started there were about 35 different tractor brands on the Australian market, not to mention the countless manufacturers of tillage equipment, headers, sprayers and the rest.
“The field days were massive, and our Ag-Quip preview one year peaked at some 80 pages.”
Yet, in a short space of time, following mergers, takeovers and collapses, the number of tractor makers shrunk to about 10 and it was a whole new ball-game.
“The same rationalisation occurred in the agricultural and veterinary chemicals sector,” he said.
Other aspects of this diverse publication had been more positive.
The Land’s livestock channel manager, Brett Tindal, said the paper was widely known as a trade journal and this philosophy had allowed staff to report on the largest amount of stud and commercial sales of any media company in Australia.
“The Land team has always been able to walk the tricky line of reporting and meeting expectations of the advertising customer through honesty and integrity,” he said.
It was this broad “church” (and growing each year through its digital platforms) where the studs got the benefit of having their sales in The Land.
“The livestock calendar drives what we do at The Land through sheer numbers of sales and the interest raised by our readers as to the drivers in the market, fluctuations, trends and how they will fair themselves,” he said.
The livestock section of the paper is where sales and editorial work the closest, and where contact with readers and advertisers is greatest.
At the core of what The Land does, is its relationships within the agricultural community.
“This is what drives trust in our product and our people,” Mr Tindal said.
“The Land staff ... have built this trust over time and become friends with a lot of the people they deal with in their daily rounds.
“This trust and the relationships have generated the title of ‘Bible of the Bush’ over many years, as readers and customers have felt they have been part of the journey.”
He said the business’ livestock services had also led the way in shaping new business in the past 15 years, with events like the Northern and Southern Beef Weeks.
“Then their was Beef Spectacular, which in its six year history became the largest regional cattle show and trade fair in NSW. This event again brought new interest to The Land.
“Off the back of the Beef Spectacular, The Land introduced commercial aspects to engage with more commercial producers, setting up the Beef Spectacular Feedback Trial, which just completed its 10th year.”
It is events such as these which have helped The Land transform to more than just a traditional newspaper.
The Land sales manager, Matt Delahunty, said The Land has been the go-to tool for farmers, “who have weathered more changes than we face as an advertising medium”.
“As print advertising has changed over the years from big, bold and long statements, the messages are now changing to suit what is happening in our landscapes,” he said.
The Land has been around for more than 100 years and has been affected by many factors but has kept turning up in farmers’ mailboxes week-in and week-out with information essential to rural lives and businesses.
“And I don’t know how many other newspapers still print a minimum of 16 pages a week of classifieds,” Mr Delahunty said.
“Will The Land be around for another 5000 issues? As long as we stay relevant and true to our audience, we will be around for many years to come.”