The Transformation

Although a personal, portable electronic newspaper may be a decade or more into the future, many traditional print newspapers are making attempts at going on-line today. They are motivated by a declining readership for their print products and a subsequent growth of electronic media. One estimate reported that newspaper consumption declined 17.9 percent from 1960 to 1990 (Brody 1990, 13). Another report said that 75 percent of Americans over 30 read a daily newspaper in 1967, but by 1994 only half did (Beckett 1994, 6). The same report said that, though the U.S. population had increased steadily, the number of newspapers sold has fallen every year since 1988, taking advertising revenues and profits with it (Beckett 1994, 6). But even during that time of decline, newspapers remained the dominant news medium. In 1960, they provided 83 percent of all the information supplied in the country, 80 percent in 1975 and 82 percent in 1980 (De Sola Pool, 97).

David Easterly, president of Cox newspapers, remained confident about the industry in a keynote speech to the Interactive Services Association meeting in Toronto in July of 1993. He said Sunday readership was up 30 percent but daily circulation hadn't changed since 1965 (Easterly 1993, 44). "And here is one of the best kept secrets in the media business: Young people read newspapers. In the 18-to 24-age bracket, 53% read a daily newspaper and almost 60% read on Sunday. And try this for shock value: That daily audience of young folks is more than double the cumulative reach of MTV measured over a full week" (Easterly 1993, 44).

A 1984 communications study noted that growth in communications was mostly in electronic media while print media tended to stagnate (De Sola Pool 1984, 16). "Starting at close to zero and becoming a significant medium only in the 1970s, data communication (which is what computer communication is called) has been growing in the U.S.A. at about 28% per annum. What is more, there is reason to expect that extraordinary growth to continue for some time to come" (De Sola Pool 1984, 27). Indeed it has. The same trend was noted 10 years later in U.S. Industrial Outlook. "Growing competition from the electronic media and a squeeze on leisure time are forcing U.S. printers and publishers to reappraise their traditional markets. Printed products originally issued as books, directories, newsletters, and reference materials increasingly appear in the form of audio books, laser disks, compact disks, software, facsimile, and on-line information (Lofquist et al. 1994, 24).

Despite the decline of print and growth of the on-line medium, many are still reluctant to make the switch to an electronic newspaper. In Canada, the 1994 Opinion Search Inc. poll found that only 40 percent of businesses and 30 percent of households said they would be interested in subscribing to an electronic newspaper (Ottawa Citizen, 8). These numbers rise to 45 and 53 percent respectively for those who already own a personal computer or plan to buy one.

Once again, people are reluctant to embrace a new medium. The fact that the technology exists doesn't mean that the demand exists. This, apparently, is nothing new. "A picture telephone was first unveiled at the 1939 World Fair ... and there still aren't any in the shops" (Beckett 1994, 6). A 1994 Gallup poll sponsored by MCI reported that 59 percent of white collar workers, a group considered likely to have access to the on-line world, said they would not try new technology until it had been proven (Danesh 1994, 2). Of the same group, 49 percent admitted to being resistant to new technology or "Cyberphobic" (Danesh 1994, 2).

The technology for much of the current on-line publication and communication was not designed for the general public, but for the technologically literate. "There is an educational disconnect between the rapidly developing communications technologies and information resources available to the public, and the public's ability to use these resources. An elite few, typically academics, researchers, technology enthusiasts, and 'network junkies,' are network literate" (McClure 1994). By contrast, computer communications systems that were designed for multiple users of every age and education level, such as Unisystem at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, have remarkable success because the technology fades into the background, allowing the user to concentrate on the information (Alber 1993, 385). "A public access system designed to serve everyone from preschoolers to senior citizens has a vertical learning curve; stated differently, the interface between the users and the system must be designed to be mastered within a few seconds the first time it is encountered. If more than a few seconds are required, perhaps 5 - 10 seconds, the customer loses interest, and the younger the customers the more impatient they are and the less able to follow written directions" (Alber 1993, 397). Even the comparatively easy WWW browsing software of Mosaic and Netscape require a certain amount of introduction to new users. The Boulder Community Network offers free training sessions to familiarize users with the software and the network. There is no guarantee that users of the available public kiosks have first attended a session.

The general level of computer literacy is, of course, changing as most children now grow up with computers in the classroom. But, because most adults did not grow up with them, many remain intimidated by the technology. "These days, most children learn to use a computer before they can read. Yet many adults can't even locate the on-off switch, and don't know where to turn for help" (Dunkel 1995, B6).

Apart from their on-line counterparts, print newspapers are also undergoing change. Market fragmentation is a trend that has affected newspapers and magazines. As the nation gradually turns to cyberspace, where users have much more control over the content of their news, the mass information market is said to be slowly dying and being replaced by "an endless group of individuals" (Conniff 1994, 5). A similar trend is occurring in the print industry as newspapers tailor their content to specific demographic groups. "A diverse group of customers by age, gender, ethnicity and other factors will require newspapers to consider information products in a range of formats tailored to their customers' interests" (Lofquist et al., 1994, 24).

This trend is even more evident in the magazine industry. As of 1990, new magazines were hitting the market at the rate of 300 per year. "Virtually all of the newcomers are highly specialized publications ... with circulations to match" (Brody 1990, 81).

Along with newspaper fragmentation, according to Cox Newspapers President David Easterly, is the trend for on-line services to return to a local feel that disappeared from newspapers long ago. "Divorces, births, house sales with prices, police logs, fire calls, Lions Club meeting notices, homework lines for students and parents, and full-length obituaries -- that is the kind of stuff that will drive usage, in my view" (1993, 44).

Visions for the future of the newspaper industry are good and bad. One has the industry forming alliances with the telephone, cable and television companies (Lofquist et al. 1994, 24). Newspapers have knowledge and resources for gathering, analyzing and disseminating news that put them in a good strategic position to make a switch to electronic formats (Lofquist et al. 24). Newspapers and magazines may diversify their products to include searchable databases, CD-ROMs, software, programming for TV and radio, and electronic publication (Lofquist et al. 1994, 24). One vision has print newspapers becoming essentially menus for the information that is on-line (Earley 1994, 14).

There are some examples of on-line newspapers that are maintaining enough readership to stay in business. Most are produced by well-established print newspaper publishers. The Mercury Center, published by California's San Jose Mercury News, has been operating via America Online since May of 1993 (Cuneo 1994, 36). As of April 1994, the Mercury Center had 33,700 users, or about 12 percent of the print circulation, a penetration that was considered good (Cuneo 1994, 36). The demographics of the users showed, not surprisingly, that most were males with above average incomes and education (Cuneo 1994, 36). The Mercury Center has been viewed as a kind of barometer to gauge how electronic newspapers in general will fair (Beckett 1994, 6). Its most popular aspect is news (Beckett 1994, 6).

The Gazette Telegraph, a Colorado Springs, Colorado, newspaper, went electronic recently with GTOnline. Like the Boulder Community Network, GTOnline can be accessed via the World Wide Web, but it requires a subscription password. According to Gazette Telegraph Research Director Phil Witherow, the subscriber base for GTOnline is appropriate for an electronic newspaper. El Paso county is home to such high-tech companies as MCI, Apple and Hewlett Packard, and military facilities like the Air Force Academy, Norad, and the Falcon Air Force Station. Witherow hopes an electronic newspaper will bring back readership that he thinks has been lost from within the high-tech fields. Recently, a subscription arrangement was made with the Air Force Academy to give access to 4,000 cadets who are issued personal computers for their rooms.

ClariNet Communications, another San Jose, Calif., company, offers ClariNews, an electronic publication that has been turning a profit since its beginnings in 1989, according to the Seybold Report on Desktop Publishing (Dyson 1994, 3). As of April 1994, ClariNews had a paying subscriber base of 60,000 readers (Dyson 1994, 3).

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