News in '90s: No More Ink-Smudged Hands?

Big dailies offering electronic versions of their papers with graphics, color, and more

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

NEWSPAPERS are still contenders.

That's the message from the print press in the United States as it battles the television, computer, and telecommunications industries for a place in the spotlight in the information age. Indeed, more of the nation's major dailies are offering electronic versions of their papers.

The Los Angeles-based Times Mirror Company is the latest. On Oct. 26, the company launched on-line versions of its two largest newspapers, the Los Angeles Times and Newsday/New York Newsday. These papers serve the two biggest media markets in the US. TimesLink and Newsday Direct, as the on-line versions are called, join more than 30 US papers currently offering such service. Several other newspapers, such as the Washington Post and the Kansas City Star, have services planned for the near future.

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On-line newspapers may become the next wave in immediate news sources, analysts say. Because electronic newspapers are easily accessible and always up to date, they can better compete with other immediate news sources such as television, says Peter Krasilovsky, media analyst with Arlen Communications, a Bethesda, Md., consulting firm

It is not yet clear, however, how much money can be made from the services. In fact, Mr. Krasilovsky says, ``it is pretty clear that they will lose money in the short term.

Most of the larger papers are signing on with national on-line network providers such as Prodigy. In addition to Newsday and the Los Angeles Times, Prodigy provides on-line service to the Tampa Tribune and the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

America Online, a rival service that offers more of a ``shopping mall'' selection of on-line services, has the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the San Jose Mercury News. Many smaller papers have launched services independently of the larger on-line network providers.

The Christian Science Monitor has been available for several years from on-line services, such as Dialogue, Datatimes, Compuserve, Dow Jones, and Nexus. On-line papers may be able to fill the void left by the demise of the afternoon edition, Krasilovsky says. ``It's a way to keep people away from the evening television news,'' he says.

Many on-line papers provide a host of services that go beyond what their printed versions offer. Some services have a local focus. Southern California residents who log onto TimesLink, for example, can learn about their local city hall, sheriff's office, library, or cable company, as well as the latest national news. There are directories to area real estate, shopping malls, and even a beach guide with a graphic featuring tiny surfers off the California coast.

Newsday Direct provides guides for everything from schools to parks to theaters in the New York area, as well as both the Long Island and New York City editions of the paper.

Publishers are emphasizing the interractive capabilities of these services, which allow readers to talk to reporters and editors as well as to each other. Krasilovsky says this will enable newspapers to get feedback from their readers on what they like and dislike.

Krasilovsky does warn, however, that the typical on-line user is not the typical newspaper reader. He says that users of on-line services, who presently reflect only a small fraction of personal computer owners, generally have high income and education levels. Times Mirror estimates that the average users of TimesLink or Newsday Direct are in their 30's and earn about $70,000 a year. The relatively small customer base is one reason most newspapers are still just ``testing the waters'' with on-line services, Krasilovsky says.

The Fort Worth Star Telegram's ``StarText,'' one of the oldest on-line newspapers, has already had a degree of success in this arena. Startext was launched in 1982 and has turned a profit since 1986, according to Gerry Barker, manager of interactive content. Its success is due to its relatively modest scale and local focus, Mr. Barker says. StarText serves about 4,500 people in the Fort Worth, Texas, area.

Not all early electronic papers were successful. Randy Bennett, director of new technologies for the Newspaper Association of America, recalls several high-profile efforts - including the Times Mirror - in the early and mid-1980s that ended in failure largely because getting on-line was such a slow process, he says.

But prospects are better this time around, Mr. Bennett says. More people are using computers with modems, he says, and modems are much faster than they used to be. According to a recent Times-Mirror study, 12 percent of American households presently have a modem-equipped computer.

How fast the computer-with-modem niche grows is of increasing importance to newspapers. Many papers are launching on-line services at a time when newspaper circulations are slipping. The Audit Bureau of Circulations, an organization that monitors newspaper circulations, finds that most of the country's biggest newspapers have lost readership in recent years. Industry analysts attribute the decline to a number of factors, including increased competition from cable television and other electronic information sources. ``Newspapers are a little more desperate than ever,'' says Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications.

Will on-line newspapers replace ink and paper? Krasilovsky says most people view these electronic versions as enhancements rather than replacements - at least for now. He points out that about 10 years ago, many people thought newspapers would soon be replaced by computers. ``There was this `Jetson' sense of the future,'' he says, referring to the space-age cartoon family. ``Now we realize that we want to use computers for some applications and not for others.''

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