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Why go Electric?

Why is it so important for the newspaper industry to get an online presence at this time? The simple answer is because of the incredible popularity of the World Wide Web and its various applications, the newspaper industry would be foolish to not at least begin to make its move online. In this new "electronic age," vast amounts of information have come within the reach of the common man.[1] This sheer volume of information on the web is staggering, with information growing by 360,000 percent in 1994 alone.[2]

In March 1996, the New York Times reported on a study done by Odyssey, an independent market research firm that tracks consumer patterns, that stated subscriptions to U.S. online services "surged 64.4 percent last year to nearly 15 million users.[3] This survey underscores what computer experts had already been forecasting - the demand for online information is exploding. Odyssey attributed this growth to a growing awareness of online services. In July 1995 only 45 percent of households with computers were aware of the Internet. This figure jumped to 73 percent of all households with computers in January 1996.[4]

The New York Times published another Internet study in May 1997. This study, conducted by the research firm FIND/SVP, was entitled The 1997 American Internet User Survey: Realities Beyond the Hype. It found that 31.3 million U.S. adults - or 16 percent of the nation's adult population - have access to an online service or the Internet, of whom half go online each day.[5]

While the actual estimates of Americans online do vary from study to study (a Baruch College-Harris Poll commissioned by Business Week around the same time reported that, not 31.1 million, but 40 million adults were using the Internet and 23 million were using online services on daily basis[6]), the industry consensus appears to be that the number of Americans regularly using the internet and other online services has more than doubled in the last 12 months. Thomas E. Miller, the director of FIND/SVP, in reaction to the study's discoveries insists that "these findings document the transition of the Internet from an over-hyped curiosity to a communications and information utility on which millions of Americans now rely."[7]

Because the Internet is a global tool, the United States is not the only country that has conducted opinion polls to determine the popularity and usage of the World Wide Web. In 1996, Australian researcher Graham Green conducted a research project for the purpose of discovering what the term "The Information Superhighway" means to the general public. He based his research project on the theory that the "general public is confused as to what the Information Superhighway actually is." He added that even though the public has heard the term used throughout the media, they do not "have a clear definition, or full realization" of what it is or what it can do for them.[8] It was Green's intention to use the data obtained from the study to assist him in the future development and marketing of online services specifically targeted towards the general public.

Green found that 50 percent of the sample population in Australia were Internet subscribers.[9] But what he really wanted to know was what type of services the Australian public would like to see on the Information Superhighway, what industries they wanted to see involved and what their definition of this new communications medium was.

The two types of services the sample population wanted to see on the Information Superhighway mentioned most often were "news and information" and "specialist information."[10] It could be argued that both of these options epitomize the type of data that would be included in an online newspaper.

As far as what kind of industries the sample population wanted to see involved on the web, newspaper publishers were mentioned five times by the twelve respondents, finishing fourth out of the nine mentions. The top three mentions were the computer software industry, finishing first with 10 mentions, and television companies (another example of an online news media) and independent citizen publications tied with seven mentions each.[11]

Looking at the supplied data, Green concluded that much of the general public perceived the World Wide Web to be a large-scale communication system.[12] Therefore, it is possible to conclude that because a newspaper's primary duty is to communicate news and ideas, an online newspaper would be a success.

However, many scholars and professionals feel that just because the number of Americans using the Internet is skyrocketing doesn't mean that the newspaper industry should abandon its current "paper" format and dive headfirst into the world of online publishing. John Consoli, executive editor of Editor & Publisher, summed up the feelings of all the Luddites in the newspaper industry by saying, "...Newspapers must continue to concentrate on meeting the needs of their core readers, who, in most instances, are not now online users. Exploring and experimenting with online editorial product is one thing, but to do so at the expense of the print product at this point does not seem to be prudent."[13]

Because of the uncertainty of the web, this way of thinking is not altogether uncommon. Newspapers rely almost exclusively on advertising revenue to turn a profit, and many leaders in the newspaper industry are very cautious to get involved in what many believe to be an unproven entity like the Internet. Some, noting a study which argues that only ten percent of all online publications turned a profit in 1996[14], doubt the viability of a paperless media industry.

While the number of online newspapers grew from ten in 1991 to 1600 in 1996[15], too many newspaper companies remain stuck on the sidelines - waiting for others in the industry to lead the way and pioneer techniques to make money online. These companies are taking the stance that they will hold back until they are sure the Internet is "for real."[16]

The belief that the Internet is just a "fad" is not uncommon but very difficult to support. The statistical data that shows the incredible growth and popularity of the web would seem to directly contradict any claim that the Web is just a "flash in the pan." The University of Florida's David Carlson maintains, "While there are certainly some unanswered questions about the Internet, I believe that it will continue to increase exponentially and it will continue to be a pervasive influence in our society."[17]

Computer columnist John Dvorak finds the idea that the Internet is just a fad to be amusing. He exclaims, "I chuckle to myself when I hear people who should know better talk about the Web as being just a fad. This is about as silly as it was to say that automobiles or talking movies were just fads."[18]

Believing that the Internet is just a fad can potentially be a dangerous viewpoint, as it allows other companies to sink their money into the areas of the Internet that would otherwise be dominated by the newspaper industry. As the newspaper industry takes its "wait and see" approach, consumer Internet providers and telephone companies are moving rapidly ahead. Below is a partial list of what the potential competition has accomplished:

Because of the advancement of the other industries, it is important for the newspaper industry to counter the threats made by this new competition. To hold back from doing so would seriously slow industry growth in the coming years as competitors continue to chip away at print newspapers' classifieds, entertainment, community listings and even news coverage. Bob Ingle, President of New Media for Knight-Ridder Publishing pleads for newspapers to step-up their online efforts, "It's hard to understand why some publishing companies are so tentative. Over the next ten to twenty years, we're talking about the life or death of the newspaper industry."[20]

Putting the popularity of the web aside for a moment, there are other reasons for the newspaper industry to move online. One of the fastest growing problems facing newspaper publishers is the proliferation of news and information and the lack of space needed to publish it all. The newspaper economic model demands that news be delivered in a set proportion to advertising, with advertising space demanding approximately 60% of the total area of the paper and the other 40% going towards editorial content.[21] The need to follow this guideline, coupled with the explosion of information, is forcing many publishers to cut out information they traditionally provided, like stock market tables and certain comic strips. A common joke in the industry plays off the New York Times slogan: "All the news that's fit to print"; the alternative version reads, "All the news that fits, we print."[22]

On the Internet the problems associated with space is never a concern. Because the Web has unlimited room to grow and expand, newspapers online can carry information that was originally cut out of the paper version because of lack of space. It can also include information the newspaper never had by way of hyperlinks to other sites. For example, if The New York Times Online featured an article on the Mars expedition, it could provide a link to the National Aeronautic and Space Administration's (NASA) Internet site. This way any reader who wanted more in-depth information on this article or anything else related to NASA and the U.S. space program could so via the link.

In today's high-pace society the online newspaper can satisfy the public's desire to "know now." No longer will it be necessary to wait for the morning paper to read about a late-breaking news story. A good example showing the advantages of an online newspaper is the timing of the death of Princess Diana. The news about her death broke in the United States late on Saturday, August 30, 1997, obviously too late for even the late edition of most newspapers. However, with an online newspaper the information could be placed on the Internet within minutes of the event. While immediacy is not the only defining element of good news practice, it leaps forward in importance on stories such as this.

Still another fascinating online application is the customizable, or personalized, front page. A growing number of Web sites are beginning to offer this technology to users free of charge. Time-Warner's Pathfinder, the home page for Time-Warner Communications, and MSNBC allow you to enter your personal preferences by way of keywords. These Web sites then search through an array of news feeds including Reuters, Business Wire, AP and PR Newswire searching for the keywords you had previously entered in a special online form. It is possible to come up with a page that presents news stories, your local area weather, television and movie listings, sports scores, your personal selection of stock prices and a comic strip of your choice, with links from each story for additional information.[23]

However, much of the public continues to have a fondness for the conventional newspaper, maintining it is already portable, recyclable, easily readable, and instantly accessable. So while the newspaper industry begins its efforts to increase its online presence, it seems that the industry is going to continue publishing the newspaper in the traditional print media for well into the 21st century.

Therefore it is fair to say that while the electronic newspaper is the future of news distribution, that future is not now. However, it is only a matter of time until technology wins and the newspaper industry makes its final push online and beyond.

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This site was created by Marc Kaplan at the University of Florida .