We’re 50 years old!

Of knights and explorers — how the Guardian began

Judith Lacy






Rangita¯ ne ancestor Wha¯tonga was brave, travelling across the Pacific Ocean to Aotearoa. A sculpture of him is now part of the Manawatu¯ Guardian’s masthead. Fifty years and two days ago, a group of brave newspaper fans and business people breathed a sigh of relief their first edition had been published. Only a few moments to pause, though, as the next edition was due out in a week, such is the cycle of community newspapers. Among those determined to provide Manawatu¯ with a choice of news and views was Grant Blanchard, the Guardian’s first manager. He was just 23. Blanchard left Freyberg High School in 1965 and joined the Royal New Zealand Navy. Four years later a major car accident ended his naval career and he returned to Palmerston North to start a career in newspaper advertising. While advertising manager at the Tribune, he decided there was a gap in the market for a midweek paper. Funds were raised from investors and the Guardian was started. “We liked the name Guardian as we felt that it truly portrayed the principles of fair and unbiased journalism. Our first logo was a knight on a horse.” Blanchard remembers the midnight trips to Whanganui to deliver the pages to the printer, then home for a couple of hours rest before starting the cycle again. “One of the comments I received from family and friends was ‘you come out on Wednesday, what do you do on the other days’?” Supermarkets became a mainstay of Guardian advertising in its formative years. “To promote our launch we produced a giant Guardian newspaper and put this on a trailer and travelled around the streets of the business area,” Blanchard says. “Journalists from the Evening Standard tried to stop this, but as we had a permit that failed. I suppose no one likes competition.” Blanchard remained the manager for a couple of years before he was approached by newspaper cooperative NZ Provincial Press to be its executive officer. “Would I do it again? Even though it was long, long hours and a lot of hard work the answer is yes. To have an independent voice in Manawatu¯ meant a lot at the time.” He has lived in Australia for the past 36 years. Palmerston North Newspapers was incorporated on June 16, 1972, but online companies register documents go back only as far as 1995. Its final directors were Keith Palmer and Donald Jones with 50 per cent each of the company’s shares. Jones says there was some internal unhappiness among the Tribune’s staff and management that resulted in the staff walking out and starting their own rival publication. “The city then had a second free weekly newspaper with the birth of the Guardian. The Tribune was eventually taken over by the Standard.” Jones says the Guardian’s operations started from humble beginnings by renting an empty shop in Stafford Arcade. The paper later moved to a small building in Main St and then to upstairs premises in the old Air New Zealand building in Princess St. “When it started the company attracted interest from various advertisers and other people willing to help the fledgling newspaper,” Jones says. “There were originally 10 equal shareholders but over subsequent years shareholders sold their interests and the company finally ended up with Keith Palmer and myself owning the company as equal shareholders.” Palmer says Frank Opie, Wally Harris and Stewart McGrail were among the original shareholders. Palmer says he and Jones sold the paper in 2002 to the Wairarapa TimesAge (then printing the Guardian) which in turn sold it to APN. It is now owned by New Zealand Media and Entertainment. Palmer started his career as an office junior at the New Zealand Herald and went on to a career in newspaper sales and management. He was advertising manager at the Hawera Star before becoming manager of the Guardian. He recalls working at the newspaper being a rescue mission that went on and on as the owners and staff had to figure out ways to keep it going. They faced big competition for advertising dollars and had to keep coming up with ideas on how the company could flourish. They ran events to increase the paper’s profile such as a win your weight in gold promotion and an eel fishing competition, plus gave voice to the community through free what’s on notices. “We had to figure out any way we could to promote ourselves.” When the company started losing its part-time production staff to fulltime jobs elsewhere it got into typesetting to provide fulltime work. “It was busy, hectic, we were just on the go the whole time.” Palmer says he has a great deal of admiration for Blanchard for starting the paper and the opportunity he gave him. Dan Kilkelly, a former Guardian manager, got ink in his veins in an unusual way. “My experience with newspapers began in 1980. I had recently sold our grocery business in Waimate and popped into the Timaru Herald office to cancel our weekly advertisement. “The ad manager of the day simply asked ‘can you tell me why you are cancelling?’ I told him and within a week I had started a new career. In those days it was grab a pencil and pen and go and sell some ads.” Kilkelly says Keith Palmer was “a great friend and gentleman”. “He gave me a call out of the blue in early 2000. One of his salespeople was off overseas and we talked about the role and I said ‘yep I’m in’. “The Guardian was unique, it played a role within the community that I believed totally in. It was customer focused and very ideas oriented.” The first edition of the Guardian looks odd to modern eyes. It was a black and white broadsheet with many small stories packed into each page. The first lead story was about circus animal droppings getting embedded in tyre treads. There were also stories on then mayor Brian Elwood’s thoughts on his honorarium and the pending council byelection after the death of councillor Bodell. They are all stories we would run today. In his congratulatory message, MP Joe Walding said a free and competitive press is our most valuable possession. Fifty years is a long time in any business, let alone one in an industry that has faced a whirlwind of change. Yet, Walding’s comments still ring true. The tension of making a profit from what the community, rightly, sees as their newspaper also remains. As we enter our 51st year, let’s all do what we can to make the Guardian — Palmerston North’s only community newspaper — golden.