The Press published its first weekly issue on 25 May 1861 – a six page paper every Saturday costing 6d – a decade after the Lyttelton Times made its appearance as Canterbury’s first newspaper. But it did have the distinction, in March 1863, of being the province’s first daily – 5,000 copies of the four-page paper were printed, selling for 3d a copy. Shortly afterwards, advertisements replaced articles on the front page.
In 1861, the principal backer was James Edward FitzGerald, Canterbury’s first superintendent and MP for Lyttelton – and also the Lyttelton Times’ first editor. FitzGerald, returning to Canterbury after an extended period back in England, disapproved of the extravagant and ambitious plans – including a Lyttelton rail tunnel – of his successor William Moorhouse. As the Lyttelton Times supported Moorhouse’s expensive schemes, FitzGerald, and like-minded settlers, put up the capital to underwrite a rival publication with a different vision for Christchurch. In the beginning, with FitzGerald writing most of the first few issues, there were violent attacks on Moorhouse and his policies but before long the paper adopted the sober, sensible standards that, over the following decades, established The Press’s reputation as New Zealand’s principal ‘journal of record’. An early contributor was Samuel Butler who wrote articles for The Press that were later woven into his famous book Erewhon.
James FitzGerald was nominally sole owner of The Press for several years, although financially indebted to two leading Canterbury businessmen. His association with The Press diminished and later ended following his acceptance of a government appointment in Wellington in 1867.
Technical innovation became a speciality of the private companies that owned The Press, with differing shareholdings, for the next century. In 1893, the Weekly Press, which began in 1865 as a news digest for country districts, produced its Christmas number with a full-colour lithographed art cover and, for the first time, half-tone blocks illustrated the articles. In 1917, Mona McKay became one of the first ‘lady reporters’ in the country to work in a general reporters’ room, long a male preserve.
Prominent staff members included Guy Scholefield, who was associate editor of The Press (1903-04), London correspondent of the NZ Associated Press (1908-19) and later, for 22 years, Parliamentary Librarian at the General Assembly Library. While Oliver Duff was editor from 1929-1932 well-known contributors included Ngaio Marsh, Monte Holcroft and D’Arcy Cresswell. Duff resigned over editorial policy differences with the board involving a tramway strike; in 1939 he became the founding editor of the NZ Listener.
In 1970 the Christchurch Press Co. Ltd. listed on the NZ Stock Exchange; in 1987 Independent Newspapers Ltd took control; and in 2003 ownership passed to the Fairfax Group.