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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