It will always be weird, no matter what anybody
says, to use a laptop in an
airport bathroom stall. It will never be
comfortable curling up in bed, on a rainy Sunday
morning, with a muffin, coffee and a Gateway 2000
P566 Pentium Processor. And it's hard to envision
your grandmother printing out Family Circus
on her bubble jet printer and posting it on the
Hold off on the obituary for the printed newspaper.
"The truth is everybody is scrambling to get on the
Web because of a fear that this will be the next
big thing and nobody wants to get left behind,"
says Washington Post media reporter Howard
Kurtz, author of the 1993 book Media
Circus. "I certainly don't think it's going to
replace the ink-on-paper version of what we do."
But something's happening. Kurtz' paper, along
with The New York Times, the Wall Street
Journal, USA Today and 1,111 other
commercial newspapers, is online. Editor &
Publisher, the industry's trade magazine,
reports that 750 papers were online in early 1996,
up from 100 in early 1995. Many are like the small
Danville (Va.) Register and Bee, which simply
reprints its top daily stories on the Web and, in a
long historical page, boasts that it announced the
fall of Richmond in 1865. A few are like the
Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer and
the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News,
Internet mainstays that link readers to local
entertainment guides, in-depth news statistics and
relevant Web sites.
The Mercury News' Mercury Center, along
with the News & Observer's Nando Times, have
been trying for the past few years to stay near the
Internet's leading edge, wherever that might be.
For the most part, though, the industry has been
slow to react to the Web's booming popularity and
the financial growth of online services America
Online and CompuServe. Some media critics,
including Jon Katz of Rolling Stone and
Wired, have chastised the industry for this --
readers have been consistently getting information,
their own way, from computers, compact discs and
cable television. Meanwhile, newspapers arrogantly
insisted the lost readers would eventually come
Today, finally, enthusiastic editors are dumping
staff and cash into their Web sites. The Chicago
Tribune, for example, has hired a three-reporter
staff to chronicle city news to supplement
the traditional coverage from its paper cousin.
Internet Tribune has dispatched teams of
college students and
free-lance writers, including this reporter, to
canvass the city's endless rows of bars,
restaurants and nightclubs for a comprehensive Web
(and AOL) "Fun Guide." But to Steven Ross, an
associate professor at Columbia University, who
conducts studies of online print media, these ideas
are too little, too late, to stem the industry's
"A newspaper delivered on newsprint -- that's a
dying species," says Ross, who runs Columbia's New
Media Workshop and has been a free-lance reporter
for almost two decades. "Printing on slivers of
dead trees -- five or 10 years out, that's over.
Newspapers insist on cheapening content at a time
the marketplace demands more content.
"If the newspapers don't do it, activist groups,
right-wing groups and churchgoing groups are going
to do it," he says. "I'm watching an industry
In Ross' view, newspapers are guilty of
quality while trying to boost the bottom line and
look good on Wall Street. Profit-minded businessmen
now run newspapers instead of traditional public-
minded newsmen, Ross says. The industry's recent
problems -- the Houston Post and New York
Newsday closing, the Philadelphia
Inquirer downsizing, the high newsprint costs
forcing papers to cut resources -- have come in part,
Ross says, because managers still haven't properly
gauged the Internet and new media. Pretty soon, he
says, high-tech gadgets such as a flat, light
connected to the television cable, will render
portability edge obsolete.
Many newspaper editors, though, say Ross' views
overly apocalyptic. Yes, they say, editors will
have to adapt to
readers' changing habits and growing technology.
But people won't abandon their Sunday-morning
reading habits. "I don't think you'll see the death
of the printed newspaper for a long, long time,"
says Lem Lloyd, new media director for the St.
Paul Pioneer Press, which runs the Web's
Pioneer Planet, "You don't want to have to
sit upright and move your computer wherever you
want to be. Most people, whenever they do anything
on the Internet, like to print it out -- which
tells you something."
Lloyd and Ross agree that on the Web, a newspaper
has to tell stories a different way. For one thing,
the Web has an unlimited space -- or "news hole,"
as print journalists call it -- for information.
Also, the Web can link
readers to first-hand sources. For example, Ross
says, if New York City Mayor Rudolf Giuliani gives
a budget speech, the New York Daily News
will likely run a few excerpts and a few reaction
quotes. The New York Times will likely run
longer excerpts and more reaction. A Web site,
however, can directly link you to a page containing
the entire budget. Beyond that, Ross suggests, they
can link to a SimCity site, where users can play a
game to figure out how the budget works.
At the Chicago Tribune, editors have
already begun that process. A recent story about
homicide statistics, in the print newspaper, ran a
small graphic with bits of maps. At the
Tribune's Web site, Chicagoans could click
on various parts of the map and read statistics
about crime in their specific neighborhoods. John
Lux, the Tribune's online editor, says this
kind of approach can help illuminate a complex
issue -- but it can't fully substitute for reading
a printed newspaper.
The traditional paper, he says, is "a timesaver,
oddly enough. If you have half-an-hour it may be
smarter for you to let the editors of the Tribune
tell you what the top things are you have to know
that day. One of the problems with the Internet is
volume -- which is one of the
reasons that the newspaper brand on a 'net site is
going to be a powerful lure. People are in the
habit of trusting editors of The New York
Times or the Chicago Tribune or the
San Jose Mercury News so they know that
they're not going to waste their time if they go to
In fact, traditional newspapers' Web sites are
among the most popular sites on the Internet.
Newslink, a site run by the American Journalism
Review, says users get news information from
USA Today, The New York Times, CNN
Interactive and the Nando Times more than
any other Web sources. This is partially because of
readers trust newspaper editors who are schooled in
making informational decisions. It's also partly
because newspapers' Web sites, unlike their printed
counterparts, are refreshingly interested in trying
new approaches. Where print editors wouldn't think
of revamping a traditional nameplate or page
designs, Internet editors get away with new, and
sometimes radical, ideas. Of course, some sites are
just as stodgy as columnist James Kilpatrick.
These are some of the more interesting papers on
- The Wall Street Journal.
The day's headlines and
stories, of course, plus a personal finance center,
where you can link to a May 5, 5995, Journal
article titled "How to Save Big Bucks When Buying a
New Car." Also, breaking business news delivered
regularly to your e-mail address. The Journal site
will soon be accessible by subscription only
($29/year for print subscribers, $49/year for non-
- The New York Times.
Daily articles link to
newsgroup-style bulletin boards, with reasonably
intellectual debates on a wide range of issues --
including new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu and whether the Seattle SuperSonics had a
chance in hell against the Chicago Bulls. You can
even do the famous crossword puzzle online.
- Chicago Tribune.
The "interactive center"
features computer-assisted reporting by the
Tribune's new online reporting staff, including in-depth stories about crime.
- Chicago Sun-Times.
The simple approach. The best
feature is every movie review Roger Ebert has ever
written, searchable by title, subject, quality and
- USA Today.
Short, low-depth stories just like
the familiar paper.
- San Jose Mercury News.
from the newspaper, mostly about computers and
coffee, plus classified ads and a pretty decent
- Nando Times.
Also Raleigh News & Observer.
The national version has big headlines
and a good employment service for openings around
the country. The Raleigh version's "Go Guide" has
solid consumer resources for local entertainment,
eating and parks.
- Telluride (Colo.) Daily Planet.
Happy, happy, happy news about
hiking, climbing, fishing, golfing and how
wonderfully affordable homes are in beautiful
- Danville (Va.) Register & Bee.
Weather links! Plus Civil War history.
- Good newspaper links and databases: Editor &
Publisher; Newspapers Online; The Electric Library, which
has 150 newspapers and 800 magazines, including the
Los Angeles Times and Newsday; and the American Journalism
Review's Newslink, which ranks readers'
Web news sources.
Will Web newspapers ever replace printed
newspapers? Ross says masters of the Web, or of
some new technology, could
easily step in to inherit newsgathering from
today's barely competent newspaper managers. So
far, nobody's making money on the Web -- but that was
true for television's first 10 years, Ross says.
Still many papers won't be so patient; as ad
revenues on the Web continue to disappoint, many
papers are charging or plan to start charging
readers for access to portions of their site
But most online editors say a total shift from
newsprint to computer screen, if it ever comes, is
much further down the road. Newspapers are using
Web sites to gradually lure "Generation X" readers,
who supposedly are much more interested in Web
page-turning back to the fold. Older readers are
still addicted to the luxury of ink-stained fingers
and doing crossword puzzles with pens. The Web
version, editors say, will continue to supplement
the printed version.
"For a paper like the Washington Post,
which is very hard to get
outside of D.C./ Maryland/Virginia, this provides a
pretty cheap way to achieve national distribution
without having to pay for trucks and printing
presses," says Kurtz. "For a smaller or midsize
paper, it's basically a way to connect with your
community, particularly with people who like
Still, Kurtz says, with no one really sure how to
make a profit from the Web, our beloved paper and
ink friend looks like he'll withstand this latest
threat. In other words, don't worry: Your bathroom
reading habits are safe for a while.