This morning newspaper readers around the country received the last full-size editions of their daily newspapers. Tim Murphy looks at the latest change in an industry struggling to keep the printing presses rolling.

Stop The Press. And the Dominion Post, Waikato Times and six other daily newspapers owned by Stuff NZ Ltd, the former Fairfax proprietor of half our print news media.

Or stop, at least, the big ‘broadsheet’ versions of those newspapers so familiar to much of the country.

Today was the final morning of the large size and fold-over format the older mastheads have graced for more than a century. As well as those main centre titles, the Taranaki Daily News, Manawatu Standard, Marlborough Express, Nelson Mail, Timaru Herald and Southland Times are about to change forever.

From Monday the weekday papers shrink to become a tabloid, or ‘compact’, shape as Stuff looks to modernise its print portfolio and save money in a market where sales of print editions continue to plummet. The Saturday and Sunday editions will remain full size, their bulk and big advertising revenues saving them from tabloidisation for now.

Stuff is late to the party. The New Zealand Herald did the same thing six years ago, itself at the tail end of an international fad. But it is in good company, The Times in the UK led the change and just this year The Guardian finally downsized to tabloid after trying a mid-sized Berliner format. The two major metropolitan dailies owned by Stuff’s owner Fairfax Australia also turned tabloid several years ago.

Publicity about the change here is focused on a better reader experience and a signal Stuff is investing in and maximising its newspaper assets.

If the Herald’s experience is anything to go by, the process of changing the shape of the paper re-focused newsrooms and the commercial side of the publishing business and produced an enriched newspaper – for a time.

However as commercial realities started to bite, with advertisers rejecting the presumption that their smaller ads in the tabloid newspaper should double in number or frequency to equate to how much they spent on big broadsheet ads, and the costs of new sections and segments staying stubbornly high, the new paper shrank again. In depth and quality.

Even in 2012, very few readers used the words Herald and tabloid in the same breath. Tabloid was never used publicly to describe the change, with ‘compact’ favoured then, and by Stuff now, to defang the feared brand damage. But the Herald’s physical change made that an obvious change and as both the daily paper and its mothership, turned more racy, the words are, fairly or unfairly, routinely combined now.

Having said that, the Herald has lost sales over the past six years at a rate far slower than the big Stuff NZ papers, which routinely shed circulation in the double digit percentages as their readers use the website or go elsewhere. Its owner, NZME, has worked hard to protect the scores of millions in revenue from people who subscribe to the paper daily.

The tabloid shape and reputation could be an issue for papers like The Press and some of the regionals, which have maintained a more sedate mix of local news – and a daily selection – on their front pages. With the tabloid, you only really get one shot – two stories maximum – once the needed promotional boxes for content inside the paper plus an advertisement and (much smaller) masthead appear. It is almost axiomatic that the selected story needs to shout to get attention.

Stuff NZ has taken an aggressively digital stance, making the website its centrepiece and actively bailing out of old media assets. It is closing 10 community newspapers of 28 it put on the block earlier this year and has axed its team of sports reporters covering the regions served by some of the papers now changing shape.

On the face of it, transforming its papers as they are in circulation freefall and as Stuff introduces new types of business such as health insurance, video streaming and high speed broadband would seem like closing a stable door.

The company views its future as providing a range of digital services – news being one of them – to its substantial audience gained from News has won it nearly two million unique viewers a month and now Stuff believes it must cash in by selling those people other products and services that can make up for print’s long, slow demise.

The papers still produce millions in revenue, and profit, overall so the change on Monday is one more way of managing decline and protecting good income for as long as possible.

Changing to the compact shape first emerged for Fairfax papers after reader research two years ago, reinforced by a deeper survey last year which found the smaller papers were preferable – and readers wanted more local news than Stuff NZ had provided.

Will these tabloids last? There is a view from within Stuff NZ that the company will within three years be little more than big newsrooms in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch serving that digital audience – and apart from The Press and Dominion Post all other print will have been sold or closed. A business about a third of the size of that which is currently wedded to heritage newspapers and print plants.

When its Australian owner’s chief executive told the Commerce Commission the business would turn to its ‘end game’ if it failed to win approval for its planned merger with NZME – which, two years on, goes to the Court of Appeal in June – that is probably close to what he had in mind.

The small and imperfectly formed newspapers that emerge on Monday may be a weigh station rather than the final destination for lovers of print.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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