PHOENIX (AP) _ Like Baltimore, Houston and St. Louis before it, Phoenix is joining the ranks of America's one-newspaper towns with the closing of its afternoon paper.

The Phoenix Gazette will cease publication on Saturday after 116 years, having become an anachronism in a booming Sunbelt city grown too busy to read an afternoon paper. The announcement came on Monday.

``It's like saying goodbye to an old friend who you knew was going to die,'' columnist Sam Lowe said.

The end of the newspaper means 55 of 400 newsroom positions will be eliminated, said John F. Oppedahl, publisher and chief executive of Phoenix Newspapers Inc., which also publishes The Arizona Republic, a morning paper.

The two newspapers had separate, competitive editorial operations until 1995, when the news staffs merged.

The Gazette's circulation had declined steadily in recent years. It is about 39,000, down from around 110,000 in the mid-1980s. The Republic has a daily circulation averaging 380,000.

``While we all feel nostalgic about the Gazette, the marketplace is telling us there is only a limited appeal for an afternoon newspaper,'' Oppedahl said. ``It has a lot to do with a lifestyle change in the United States. The way we used to work and live allowed for a lot more time to read newspapers in the afternoon.''

Lowe, who has been at the Gazette for 24 years, said no one was surprised by the announcement because the paper has steadily been losing circulation.

``From a business standpoint, it was the only thing they could do. We held out longer than most'' afternoon newspapers, he said.

In the mid-1980s, there were 1,220 evening daily newspapers. There are now 928, said Ronald Weathersby of the Newspaper Association of America in Washington. Among the more recent casualties was the Baltimore Evening Sun, which closed in 1995 after 85 years of publication.

With people working later and television consuming what's left of the evening leisure time, afternoon newspapers are becoming less attractive, said newspaper industry consultant John Morton.

Afternoon papers still do well in rural communities but have struggled in large cities. Morton said afternoon papers were traditionally aimed at blue-collar workers, who went to and from work early in the day. The papers' decline has closely followed the loss of blue-collar jobs nationwide, he said.

The Gazette was founded in 1880, or 32 years before Arizona became a state. It switched between morning and afternoon publication until it established itself as an afternoon paper in 1904. It became the Phoenix Evening Gazette in 1928, and combined operations with the Republic in 1930.

PNI's parent, Central Newspapers Inc., also merged newsrooms at the papers in its headquarters city, The Indianapolis Star and The Indianapolis News.