The New Zealand Observer was one of a number of illustrated weekly newspapers that were popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Observer was probably not as popular or as well known as some of the other weeklies, e.g. the Weekly News, New Zealand Free Lance and the Otago Witness.

The Observer was first published in Auckland in 1880 by Alfred Stewart Rathbone, an English journalist who had been running the Bay of Plenty Times. The Observer’s history is convoluted and closely interwoven with that of other Auckland newspapers of the 1870s and 1880s, particularly the Auckland Star.

The Auckland Star started publishing in 1870. It was a liberal paper and set out to challenge the more conservative Evening News. One of the Star’s owners, Henry Brett, was an important figure in the development of the press in New Zealand. He had worked for the Southern Cross and the New Zealand Herald as well as publishing a number of popular and influential periodicals besides the Star. He was also a director and chairman of the Press Association and an original member of the Newspaper Proprietors Association.

The Star was popular and successful from its inception, despite having a number of rivals in the 1870s and 1880s. In addition to the Observer these also included the Free Lance, set up by John Dickson Wickham in 1879.

In 1884 the Observer’s publishers put out the Evening Telephone to compete with the Star. However this paper soon proved a financial drain and in 1885 John Wickham acquired both the Telephone and the Observer merging them with the Free Lance and retaining the Observer name.

With the demise of the Telephone came the Evening Bell (first published on 12 May 1885), which lasted three years before Brett bought it and the Observer. Having incorporated the Bell, Brett sold the Observer in 1889.

In the 1890s the paper was called the New Zealand Observer and Free Lance. It became well established in the 1890s and similar publications were started in Christchurch (the Spectator) and Wellington (the New Zealand Free Lance).

Like the other pictorial weeklies, the paper went into decline in the first half of the 20th century and stopped publishing in November 1954.

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