Stop the Presses?

       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 fridge.
       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 back.
       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 inevitable decline.
       "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 when 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 sink."
       In Ross' view, newspapers are guilty of relentlessly cutting 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 computer connected to the television cable, will render newspapers' portability edge obsolete.
       Many newspaper editors, though, say Ross' views are 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 the sheer 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 that site."
       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 Lux' theory-- 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 Web:

  • 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- print subscribers)

  • 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 year.

  • USA Today. Short, low-depth stories just like the familiar paper.

  • San Jose Mercury News. Reconfigured stories from the newspaper, mostly about computers and coffee, plus classified ads and a pretty decent archive.

  • 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 mountainous Telluride.

  • 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' top 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 their Web sites to gradually lure "Generation X" readers, who supposedly are much more interested in Web surfing than 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 interactivity."
       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.

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