The distinctiveness of the Australian Sunday newspaper lies in its relative recency. With few exceptions, all the Sunday newspapers circulating in 2014 dated from the 20th century or later. The development of the Sunday press can be divided into five periods: colonial influence overlaid by Sabbatarianism (1880s–1920s); the emergence of the first competitive commercial papers (1920s–1940s); modernisation (1950s–1970s); heightened corporate competition (1970s–1980s); and consolidation and oligopolisation (since the mid-1980s).
Although, as a consequence of colonialism, the development of the Australian press as a whole was influenced by the parallel situation in Britain, this was less the case with Sunday newspapers. Popular Sunday titles began appearing in Britain from the 1840s. They may have been tolerated because they provided a distraction from radical politics for the working class. However, a much stricter adherence to Sunday observance laws by individual states in Australia hindered the emergence of local titles. Furthermore, the widely dispersed Australian population made weekly editions (summaries) of metropolitan daily papers more viable until the development of the railways ensured more prompt mail deliveries.
Thus the first period of the development of Sunday newspapers in Australia was one of colonial influence, mitigated by Sabbatarianism. A limited number of titles (Sydney’s Sunday Times, the Sunday News and Truth, and Perth’s Sunday Times and Sunday Chronicle) began to circulate in the 1880s and 1890s. In Victoria, editions published up to midnight on a Saturday acted as a substitute. An attempt to publish a Sunday Times in Melbourne in the 1880s drew an instant negative response from the state government. At the beginning of the 20th century, Truth editions circulated in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart, establishing a national ‘network’ that was often in competition with state papers, and a precedent for interstate ownership that later came to characterise the oligopolisation of the Australian media as a whole.
This gave way to a second period, during the inter-war years, of a more competitive market in Sunday titles across the country. A number of new titles were published, including the Sunday News (1919), the Sunday Pictorial (1929), the Sunday Guardian (1929) and the Sunday Telegraph (1939) in Sydney, and the Sunday Mail (1923) in Brisbane. Attempts were made to establish Sunday papers in provincial cities; these included the Newcastle Sunday Mirror (1959–61), which then became part of Sydney’s Sunday Mirror. Closures (of the Sunday News, the Sunday Times, the Sunday Pictorial and the Sunday Guardian) were almost as typical of the period as launches.
After something of a hiatus during World War II, a period of modernisation followed, coinciding with the repeal of Sunday observance laws in most states for shops (1966), cinemas and sport (1967), and newspapers (1969). This was also the period when Australia’s major newspaper groups came to dominate the Sunday market. Consolidated Press Ltd launched the Sunday Telegraph in 1939, while Fairfax merged its fledgling Sunday Herald (est. 1949) with its recent acquisition, the Sunday Sun (est. 1903), to form the Sun-Herald in 1953. A second Adelaide title, the Sunday Advertiser, was launched in 1953 but merged with News Limited’s Sunday Mail just two years later. By the mid-1950s, half of the Sunday newspapers existing in the second decade of the 21st century had been established. Truth became the Sydney Sunday Mirror in 1958, passing into the hands of Fairfax and then News Limited.
Corporate competition intensified in the 1970s. This was exemplified by developments in Melbourne, where Sunday newspapers were illegal. Agitation to permit Sunday newspapers had been made from the later 19th century. As late as 1938, Melbourne on Sunday was ridiculed by a Protestant clergyman as ‘the quietest city in the Empire’. David Syme’s Newsday and the Herald and Weekly Times’ Sunday Sun attempted Sunday publication in 1969; however, these projects were abandoned after rejection of the proprietors’ wage terms by printing unions. (Newsday briefly appeared as an afternoon newspaper instead.) Melbourne’s first actual Sunday paper, the Sunday Observer, appeared in 1969; it was followed by a joint Syme–HWT venture, the Sunday Press, in 1973. Not surprisingly, Sunday papers in Melbourne had a somewhat chequered existence: the Sunday Observer circulated from 1969 to 1971, then re-emerged (1973–89). The Sunday News and the Sunday Review were short-lived ventures of the 1970s. Sunday, a successor to the Sunday Mirror, closed in 1979. The Sunday Press, a joint venture of the Age and the Herald, ran from 1973 to 1989. The most celebrated but quickly aborted venture was News Limited’s Sunday Australian (1971–72), which was merged with the Sunday Telegraph when the latter was acquired by the company.
By the 1980s, ownership of the Sunday press, with the exception of two titles—Melbourne’s Sunday Observer and Perth’s Sunday Independent—was concentrated in three corporations: Fairfax, News Limited and the HWT. Further closures followed, particularly after 1987, described by media historian Bridget Griffen-Foley as ‘the worst period of newspaper closures ever experienced in Australia’, as the oligopoly of owners that had begun to form 60 years earlier looked to consolidate. The chief action was News Limited’s takeover of HWT. These factors combined to produce what has been termed ‘the battle of Sunday’ and the ‘Sunday newspaper wars’ in Melbourne.
Intended to prevent successful start-ups by other companies, the Sunday Press was shut down in 1989—just after the closure of the Sunday Observer. Three new Melbourne Sunday titles appeared more or less simultaneously: News Limited’s Sunday Herald and Sunday Sun News-Pictorial and Fairfax’s Sunday Age. In 1991, the two News Limited titles were merged to form the Sunday Herald-Sun. At the same time, closures followed as News and Fairfax rationalised their operations into an effective duopoly. Fairfax’s National Times on Sunday lasted from 1986 until 1988, and News’s Sunday Sun, which had succeeded Brisbane’s Sunday Truth in 1971, ceased publication in 1992.
However, other titles were established as conglomerates looked to extend their reach: a Sunday edition of the Canberra Times (1978), and the Sunday Tasmanian and the Sunday Territorian (both in 1984). Between October 1984 and June 1985, there were two Sunday Terroritorians; the Murdoch one still survives. The creation of new titles continued into the 21st century as attempts were made particularly to introduce regional Sunday papers in places such as Geelong (News Limited), Launceston and Dubbo (both Fairfax). The largely regional APN News and Media participated with the Sunshine Coast Sunday (1992– ) and Ipswich on Sunday (est. 2001).
Nonetheless, by 2014 News was publishing Sunday papers in every state and territory, except the ACT, and Fairfax/Rural Press in three, accounting together for every title in capital cities, with direct competition in only Sydney and Melbourne. The major criticism of this historical trajectory has been that it has restricted both the numbers of newspapers in circulation, and diversity and pluralism.
In 2006, 65.5 per cent of Australians over the age of 15 read a Sunday paper, compared with 54.6 per cent reading daily (Monday to Friday) editions and 63.5 per cent Saturday editions. However, these figures appear to be in secular decline, and by the end of 2011 every title except the Sunday Age had recorded circulation losses.
REFs: S. Foley, ‘The Battle of Sunday’, Age, 16 August 2009; P. Gatenby, ‘The Australian Newspaper Plan (ANPlan)’ (conference paper, 2008); R. Tiffen, ‘Changes in Australian Newspapers, 1956–2006’ (conference paper, 2009).