At the forefront of history

"We write 365 days a year the first rough draft of history, and that is a very great task." So once wrote Philip L. Graham, longtime publisher of The Washington Post, and although the phrase was not his own, he helped to popularise the notion of the role played in the public life of nations, provinces and cities by daily newspapers.

Today, the Otago Daily Times, the oldest daily title in the country, marks 150 years of publication. Those 150 years cover the greater part of the organised European settlement of Otago, so it is neither self-aggrandising boast, nor frivolous claim, that the accumulated reporting of this title across a century and a-half is in fact a dense and detailed history, in the popular sense, of the region.

Bearing witness to and reporting daily the "times" of Otago - the events, issues and concerns of the province and its people - was an opportunity and a task set to by Julius Vogel, later Sir Julius, as the newspaper's first editor, and publisher William Cutten on November 15, 1861. Following their lead has been a responsibility and a privilege discharged in the intervening years by management and staff - many of them long-serving - who have since worked at the newspaper.

One hundred and fifty years is a long time in the history of any institution. Such durability does not rest on good luck or fair winds.

The Otago Daily Times was established with a clear vision: to provide a comprehensive mix of news and information about the Otago region, to relay news of national events and issues, and to provide coverage of world news as well. It would also, where appropriate, advocate for regional causes, agitate on social matters, and provide intelligent, often bracing, opinions in its editorials on the full range of regional and national endeavour.

Readers of the Otago Daily Times will have been reminded during the past 150 publication days, with the presentation of year-by-year coverage, and again today with the special enclosed anniversary edition, of the extent of its historical record. While it stands as some measure of the newspaper's permanence, repetitive publication over 150 years does not account for its growth and success. For allied to the vision of the newspaper, on which it has earned respect and built tradition, are the less tangible, but essential, attitudes of its personality: integrity, honesty, fairness, innovation, relevance - and an occasionally quirky but well-honed sense of humour.

To these we would add independence. On the centenary of the United Kingdom's Guardian newspaper in 1921, C.P. Scott penned a celebrated, signed editorial. In it he wrote: "One of the virtues, perhaps almost the chief virtue, of a newspaper is its independence.

Whatever its position or character, at least it should have a soul of its own." The Otago Daily Times is the last remaining independent daily newspaper in New Zealand and as such is not beholden to values other than those it - and its readers and advertisers - have come to cherish.

These permeate its pages. In addition to its comprehensive news coverage, the modern Otago Daily Times publishes a range of opinion and viewpoints from all quarters of the political and philosophical spectrum. It has vibrant feature articles, a strong tradition of opinionated cartoonists, and excellent photography. On occasion it will lead on matters of social import, from disclosures about sweat shops in the Dunedin clothing industry in the 1880s, to the campaign to save neurosurgery in the South last year.

Ninety years ago, C.P. Scott also wrote in that editorial: "Comment is free, but facts are sacred." Never has the sentiment seemed more prescient. The inexorable march of digital technology, of the internet and of social networking phenomena - and the burgeoning associated sources of information - will ultimately place a premium on factual reporting: what is true and what is mere rumour, what can be believed and what is in the realm of gossip.

Like other news organisations, the Otago Daily Times will continue to use digital media and expand its online presence. But it will do so cognisant of the values that, as much as longevity, are at the heart of this masthead's proud history.

These, along with the support of its community, will be critical to its future as it navigates and negotiates its way through the next 150 years.

 

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