David Syme made his name and his fortune in newspapers – specifically The Age – and his life’s course might be compared with the workings of a gigantic web offset press.
I have watched such machines at work. They start off slow; the rolls of naked newsprint snake by gently, round and round. When the presses roar to life the noise is astonishing; the paper is stretched like the thinnest of skins as it flashes, smooth and furious, through the machine, soaking up words and pictures. If the paper breaks, the whole thing unravels and the run must be reset. So it was with Syme, the brilliant but perplexing man who owned and ran The Age from 1860 until his death in 1908. At its peak in the 1880s, only the London dailies had higher circulations. One in ten people in Melbourne bought a copy.