1920-2017 | VIC | Journalist & publisher
Isaacson started out as a messenger boy at The Age and ended his media career as the largest independent publisher in the country. After a dashing and much-decorated spell as an RAAF pilot during WW2, he established his first newspaper, The Elsternwick Advertiser (later the Southern Cross), in 1947 and set up Peter Isaacson Publications. He capitalised on the need for local news and the emergence of shopping centres that enabled regionally-targeted advertising, building a healthy stable of suburban papers and business-to-business publications that helped transform specialist papers in Australia. Among his 60 Australian titles were dozens of industry publications and The Sunday Observer.
Peter Isaacson came home from the Second World War with 400 pounds to his name. With the same pluck and determination that distinguished him during the war, he built a multi-national, multi-million dollar publishing empire.
Starting with a single Melbourne suburban giveaway, The Elsternwick Advertiser, in 1947, he created a publishing house with papers and magazines in every Australian state as well as New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Born in England to an Australian father and English mother, Isaacson arrived in Australia in 1926 at the age of six. Caroline Isaacson, women’s editor of The Age and herself a pioneer of community publishing, got her son his first job as a teenage messenger on the paper. After the war, with her, he joined The Argus as a reporter and became aviation correspondent.
In 1940 Isaacson enlisted with the Royal Australian Air Force. After pilot training in Australia and Canada, he was posted to the UK where he went on to complete 45 missions with Bomber Command including many with the legendary Pathfinders– a remarkable achievement given the attrition rate for Australian air crew in Europe was 42 per cent.
Isaacson ended the war as one of the most highly decorated Australian airmen – winning the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Force Cross and the Distinguished Flying Medal.
The citation to his DFC – a rare immediate award of the honour after a bombing raid on Berlin – attested to his skill and tenacity.
“While still over the target area, his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire and severely damaged. The mid-upper turret was twisted, the perspex and two engine cowlings blown off, the aileron controls damaged and the aircraft forced down to 4000 feet. On the return journey, the aircraft was driven off the route and held in a cone of searchlights for 15 minutes … In the face of this perilous situation Pilot Officer Isaacson, showing coolness, resolution and skillful airmanship succeeded in flying his aircraft back to base.”
Peter Isaacson was 22 at the time.
In late 1943 Isaacson flew his Lancaster – Q-for-Queenie – back home via the United States and across the Pacific. It was the first flight from Britain to Australia from east to west. He then took the plane around the country and across to New Zealand (the first flight from Melbourne to New Zealand and back) promoting war loans and enlistment.
On October 22, 1943, while circling Sydney, Isaacson swooped low over the harbour and – without warning his crew – under the bridge, in defiance of regulations prohibiting such stunts.
“Two authorities wanted to court martial me: Eastern Area, in which the crime was committed, and Southern Command, to which I was attached at the time,” Isaacson later recalled. “I was told later there was a great fight among the bureaucrats of each of these two commands as to which would court martial me. Apparently they could not agree on which should be the prosecutor and the idea lapsed.”
Described by biographer Denis Warner as “a founding father of the modern, well-produced, newsy suburban newspaper”, Isaacson founded Peter Isaacson Publications in 1947 with the launch of The Elsternwick Advertiser. The company expanded rapidly, taking over other community newspapers. The Advertiser became Southern Cross, which Isaacson edited and wrote a controversial weekly column for. He later published The Sunday Observer and a host of business and industry magazines. The company also published reference books and tourist guides as the business expended around Australia and into New Zealand and Asia.
In 1986 the company took over the Asher Joel Media Group. It was itself bought out by APN in 1993.
Described by New Corp executive Julian Clarke as the elder statesman of “a cheeky and confident” new publishing industry, Isaacson helped form the Melbourne Suburban Newspapers Association. “Peter, with others, brought to that group an aggressive, in-your- face energy that eventually spread to Sydney and there beyond into the Australian Suburban Newspapers’ Association,” Clarke said.
Isaacson was both a canny businessman and a tough manager, according to Denis Warner. “To those of his staff who could stand his outbursts – the great majority – enigmatic Peter was loved and respected, a father figure, the head of a happy family. Others fled to more conventional places of employment where volcanic explosions were not usually part of the routine.”
His own family life was rich and enduring, producing two sons.
Isaacson’s boyhood sweetheart and wife of 63 years, Anne McIntyre, contracted polio a week after their engagement and for five years was paralysed and confined to bed. When they finally married, he carried her into the registry office.
Isaacson was a trustee, chairman and life governor of Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance from the 1950s. He served as an honorary aide-de-camp to the Queen from 1963 to 1965, and was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 1991 for his contribution to publishing and community work.
Mark Baker is CEO of the Melbourne Press Club. He is a former Fairfax Editor and foreign correspondent.
Isaacson with his wife Anne McIntyre.
Isaacson in uniform, courtesy of National Library Australia.
Isaacson's daring 1943 swoop under the Sydney Harbour Bridge almost saw him court martialed.
Peter Isaacson in his office. Courtesy of News Limited/Newspix.
Pathfinder: The Peter Isaacson Story, Denis Warner, Information Australia, 2000.
As I Remember Them: Men and Women who Shaped a Life, Peter Isaacson, Red Dog Books, Clifton Hill, 2012.