Together with the Rand Daily Mail, the Daily Dispatch was one of the loudest mouthpieces for mainstream liberal critique of the Apartheid government and its policies. Its heyday was certainly 1965-1977, under the editorship of Donald Woods.
At the age of 24, Massey Hicks published the first edition of the East London Dispatch and the Shipping & Mercantile Gazzette, that appeared as the subsidiary of the Kaffrarian Watchman in September 1872. Whilst building a cottage to work from, the newspaper used Mrs J. Dempster kitchen as the press room. The kitchen gave birth to the four-page tabloid that cost three pence, now known as the Daily Dispatch. In June 1874, Thomas William Goodwin bought the paper and became the new editor. Under his leadership, the newspaper published East London’s first almanac and presented a copy to every reader by December of the same year. Additionally, Goodwin formed a partnership with William Lance in November 1876, who became the succeeding editor. The newspaper’s printer works moved to Caxton Street and later moved to bigger premises on Terminus Street. Under the leadership of Bill Dodd from 1912-1938, the newspaper faced its first financial crisis in 1931. The crisis resulted in a call for temporary reduction of ten percent in all salaries. The aim was to keep all staff without the loss of jobs. Furthermore, the paging was reduced and less expensive wire services were used.
After many staff and management changes, 1960 has been marked as the beginning of an era of considerable change and modernisation at the Daily Dispatch. On 21 May a service for readers to phone in advertisements and a daily page targeted at women was inaugurated. The daily page for women was created as a reaction to the feminist movement that was on the rise. However, it was abandoned in the face of discontent of separatism. April 1963 saw an increase in the sales of the newspaper since December 1949. In the same month, the staff succeeded in modifying the press to print the newspaper’s first colour advertisement. The technical director of the modifications, Binks Arnold recalled this as the masterpiece of innovation.
The Daily Dispatch had the privilege of having talented members of staff who played a significant role in the country. For example, well-known magistrate turned cartoonist Don Kenyon joined the paper in November 1964. His cartoons graced the Daily Dispatch for more than two decades. Kenyon’s cartoons appeared in a book of South African cartoonists. He was honoured with posthumous exhibition of his work at the East London Museum. The newspaper also had other award-winning nationally acclaimed photographers.
In February 1965, Donald Woods became editor of the newspaper. He studied law for five years and soon after became a journalist. He spent two years at the Daily Dispatch and thereafter, left to work at newspapers in London, Wales and Canada and returned to the Daily Dispatch in 1960. Woods had a rapid all-round experience at the newspaper before he became the editor. One of his projects was to recruit staff from overseas and other parts of the country, the result of this was the growth of the Daily Dispatch from an 18 000 circulation to 33 000 in 1977. Under Woods’ leadership, the Daily Dispatch was the first newspaper to have a proper leader page with a mix of feature articles. The feature leader page was published in March 1963 and was eventually followed by every other national newspaper. Furthermore, Woods was known for his loyalty to concepts of justice and strong anti-apartheid stance. He had developed a friendship with Steve Biko. He had gone to then justice minister, Jimmy Kruger, to urge him to take great care of Biko who was in detention. Under his leadership, the newspaper called out the Apartheid government in its role in Biko’s death by designing a big colour picture of Biko as the front page. The picture carried the words, “A Hero of the Nation” in English and isiXhosa. As a result, Woods was arrested at Jan Smuts Airport on 19 November 1977. Woods and his family went to exile in London where he wrote six books on South Africa’s apartheid. He has been awarded honorary doctorates and addressed the United Nations Security Council. Due to its use to pressure the national government and injustice, the newspaper faced opposition from the arrival of autocratic leaders in the newly formed Transkei and Ciskei. Kaizer Matanzima banned the paper for three weeks in 1979 and wrongfully arrested Daily Dispatch journalists. Lennox Sebe banned all government employees from reading the Daily Dispatch. The region faced power change and militant tactics adopted by political groups that resulted in newspaper vans and retailers being threatened, shot at and set alight.
The newspaper went through changes such as being the first to offer full colour facilities in South Africa. Furthermore, under the leadership of George Farr, the newspaper donned a new header in lower case to make it easier for readers to read. When Glyn Williams became editor in 1987, his aim was for the newspaper to be the best newspaper in the world for the Eastern Cape. The paper continued to grow and make profits. In 1992, the Daily Dispatch was declared as the most widely read newspaper in the Eastern Cape. In September 1997, the paper kept up with technological changes by creating an online edition of the newspaper, the Daily Dispatch Online.