The Otago Witness was a
significant example of the illustrated weekly newspapers that were a
popular and important form of publication in New Zealand in the 19th and
early 20th centuries. They were particularly popular in isolated rural
areas where poor access prevented newspapers being delivered daily.
These papers were the main medium for published illustrations and
photographs. Others examples include the Weekly News (Auckland) and the
New Zealand Free Lance (Wellington).
The Witness began in 1851 as a four page, fortnightly newspaper and
started publishing weekly in August that year. The Witness took its
title from the Edinburgh Witness, which was a popular journal in
Scotland. In its early years the Witness took a high moral stance.
However it was actually insulting, vindictive and highly biased in the
way that it helped William Cargill (leader of the Otago Association, the
branch of the New Zealand Company responsible for the initial settlement
of Otago), fight his political opponents. Over time it settled down and
became an inoffensive journal that was widely distributed, particularly
in the South Island.
At first the Otago Witness struggled to pay its way. In 1855 the paper
had only 210 subscribers but by 1864 the paper was printing 4,500 copies
a week. The newspaper's fortunes were secured in the 1860s by the influx
of people into Otago looking for gold. The Witness also published an
edition especially for the goldfields.
During this time the paper's popularity was further improved by
introducing illustrations. Initially these were engravings but around
1900 the Witness started using photographs on an insert. The illustrated
content increased considerably over time.
Although the Witness was probably the most conservative of the pictorial
weeklies it provided an important outlet for New Zealand writers by
regularly publishing poetry and short stories.
Like the other New Zealand weekly newspapers the Witness was adversely
affected by the increasing development of rural land as well as
competition from broadcasting. The paper stopped publication in 1932.
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