Twilight zone: New Zealand’s few remaining evening papers could be gone within five years

That tradition ended in 2002 when The Evening Post, the last evening metropolitan newspaper in Australasia, merged with the morning Dominion to form The Dominion Post.

The Auckland Star and its Christchurch counterpart had already disappeared into paid daily publishing history, as had The Herald in Melbourne, The Daily Mirror in Sydney and a string of others, including more recently The Evening Standard in London.

In the near-decade since the Wellington evening daily’s demise, several afternoon New Zealand newspapers have dipped their toes into morning deliveries by changing their Saturday publishing schedule: Fairfax’s Manawatu Standard in Palmerston North and Waikato Times in Hamilton, and APN News & Media’s neighbouring Bay of Plenty Times in Tauranga and Hawke’s Bay Today in Hastings.

The decision by the Waikato Times to take the full plunge into morning delivery, with a weekday move to mornings from September, is a significant step. Others may well follow suit.

Canterbury University journalism school head Jim Tully believes afternoon newspapers are a dying breed and may have disappeared in five years.

Some already have such early deadlines – partly driven by the merging of print sites – that they are de facto morning papers in any case.

The majority of the country’s regional papers – including The Northern Advocate in Whangarei, The Daily Post in Rotorua, The Gisborne Herald, The Marlborough Express in Blenheim, the Wairarapa Times-Age in Masterton, The Nelson Mail, Greymouth Star and Oamaru Mail – do publish during the day.

Associate professor Jim Tully has led the Canterbury course for 25 years, but he was formerly an editorial executive in Auckland and was involved in the closure of the Star’s Saturday edition and its sister paper the 8 o’clock in favour of a Sunday edition (which later merged with the New Zealand Times to form the current Sunday Star-Times).

Back then rush hour traffic and the introduction of daylight saving were the big factors affecting sales.

Today the key drivers are more diverse lifestyles and a rapidly changing news environment.

Breaking news is no longer the preserve of newspapers printed as late as mid-afternoon.

But what has not changed, particularly in provincial areas, is the connection with the community and the depth of coverage of local affairs that ensures high readership penetration.

Associate professor Tully says this is something his students comment on: “They are surprised at the warm feelings people have for their local paper.”

Whether that translates from afternoons and evenings to the breakfast table is the question managers are wrestling with.

The Waikato Times pulled its first edition deadline forward in the mid 1990s to hit lunchtime traffic and has been investigating the move to mornings for several years.

Its circulation has held at around the current 41,000 for at least a decade.

General manager Gerard Watt has called the move a sign of the times, with readers getting their daily feed of news in different ways, including online and smartphones.

It will bring the Waikato newspaper into direct competition with the New Zealand Herald, the country’s largest circulating paper by a long shot.

But the Auckland-based Herald has never threatened the Times on its home patch.

The parochial Waikato Times, a major sponsor of the Chiefs and heartland rugby, along with many other community events, is wrapped around its community and that grip will not be easily broken, no matter the time of day.

Tim Pankhurst is NZ Newspaper Publishers’ Association chief executive and a former editor of the Waikato Times, The Evening Post and The Dominion Post

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