Hard Copies

Posted by Ellen

Back in March 1866, Greymouth was a rough little gold rush town on New Zealand's wild west coast, crowded with young men scheming to get rich quick, many of them immigrants from Ireland. While most of the town celebrated St. Patrick's Day that year, a man named Synder Browne huddled in a tent near the muddy outskirts of town, setting type by hand for the first edition of Greymouth's second newspaper, the Evening Star.

Greymouth's first paper, already a year old by then, was the Grey River Argus, which would become a Socialist tabloid. For the next century, the left-wing Argus and the right-wing Star would duke it out in the local marketplace of public opinion; their editors, it was said, took opposing positions on absolutely every public issue. Only once a year, on Christmas Eve, would the two editors get together for a holiday drink and some collegial conversation. Every other day of the year they spat and fussed in the competition for readers and for influence over Greymouth's affairs.

The town survived the gold rush, thanks to another mineral that had actually been discovered earlier but was initially ignored because it didn't glitter like you-know-what: coal. There was plenty of coal in the hillsides around Greymouth, though all the customers for coal, and all the ports suitable for coal shipping, were hundreds or thousands of kilometers away on the other side of the Southern Alps. Greymouth was a seaside town but without a decent harbor; it sat rough and damp in the nearly uninhabited rainforest along the west coast of New Zealand's South Island. To make a go of coal mining thereabouts, somebody was going to have to build a railroad over the mountains.

The Argus and the Star had different ideas about Greymouth's economic development. They argued for different people to pay for, and benefit from, the railroad project. When coal mining became established, the two papers argued even more fiercely over mine safety and environmental issues. The mines there have been productive but quite dangerous, with high concentrations of coalbed methane. Many miners have died over the years in mine fires and explosions, and several mine projects have been abandoned after methane levels proved uncontrollable. The Argus and the Star told different stories about the tragedies.

Most mines are closed now, and the town survives on forestry work and tourism; it is a portal to the glacier and fjord country further south. The population has leveled off at about 5,000, and there's only one newspaper left, the Greymouth Star. The Argus folded in the 1960s.

Today, the Star is owned by a publishing conglomerate based in Dunedin. And even though print media is in big trouble all over the world, the Star is hanging on, with subscribers all along the west coast and a workforce of more than 60 fulltime employees.

The Star is available online as well as on paper. In the latest edition, you can read about Charles Edward Miller Pearce, a New Zealand–born mathematician who taught at Adelaide University in Australia. He came home for a visit, rented a car at the Hokitika airport, just south of Greymouth, then drove south on the coastal highway until he apparently lost consciousness. His car landed upside down in shallow water, with only his head submerged.

"If he had been conscious, all he would have had to do was turn his head towards the middle of the car," a witness told the coroner, according to the Star's report, "and his face would have been out of the water."

"I observed that he had a peaceful expression on his face," noted a second witness. "My guess was that he fell asleep at the wheel and never woke up."