And Now, Key In . . .

Ombudsman

March 07, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

Eleanor L. H. Stewart, of Towson, is an 83-year-old retire nurse who adjusts easily to changing times, so she is happy to volunteer with the AIDS support agency HERO. She also keeps up with the news but wants more than newspapers and television.

A Sun reader for decades, Ms. Stewart has a new toy, the paper's phone information service, SUNDIAL. "I'm having a ball with it," she says. "I check Stockline, the business news, Market Insight, world news, the weather. But not the skiing report. I don't ski."

Scott L. Tilson, a 32-year-old Baltimore businessman whose company sells collectibles, checks his stocks on SUNDIAL "several times each day when I'm ready to make a buy or sell decision." But recently he doesn't like listening to two commercials before learning if a stock went up or down.

The new technology doesn't work for all. Jay Mullen, 69, of Churchville, can't use the service. He has a rotary phone and, despite the SUNDIAL name, the new rigging hooks up only with touch-tone phones, unless a special adapter is purchased.

The five-year-old service was one of the first of many newspaper au- diotext systems. It now attracts more than 4 million calls a year. It is part of The Sun's efforts to develop new methods of distributing news and information, a common search by many companies these days.

SUNDIAL started in 1988 when Karen L. Stabley, then a consultant, suggested that The Sun start an audiotext system, using recorded messages much like the familiar recorded weather reports.

Not all new information services sell. She had been involved earlier in an unsuccessful Knight-Ridder-Sun videotex project called Viewtron in which a special new control box was hooked up to people's TV sets. People could read hundreds of news stories in big type on the screen and punch buttons to see fancy graphics for things to buy.

The experiment was tested in the Miami area and would have been offered Maryland subscribers if successful, but Knight-Ridder scrapped it for lack of interest. Other American newspaper giants also dumped their versions of the same project in the early 1980s.

"The major obstacle was the device," Ms. Stabley said. "It tied up the television set. It would have competed with the regular TV networks, cable TV, video films. And people weren't interested in reading news on a TV screen."

But as easily as people breathe, they pick up the phone. The company liked Ms. Stabley's phone idea and hired her as director of new electronic media. SUNDIAL would be free, except for the local phone call cost, a new way of delivering information and advertising to complement the newspaper.

Ms. Stabley lined up 24 SUNDIAL phone lines, bought news services from the Associated Press, Dow Jones and Accu-Weather, developed some 15-second ads and put in a full-page Sun promotion ad. On June 6, 1988, she sat back and worried, "Will anyone call?"

"We were busied out that first day," she said. "The lines filled up and we've been adding lines ever since. The first month, we had 145,370 calls, mostly for stock market information. After that we added general news, sports, weather and occasional special projects."

Ms. Stabley in 1989 founded what is now a 250-newspaper "Voice Network."

Diana Murphy, senior vice president, advertising/marketing, said SUNDIAL is "a value added service for our readers and advertisers." She said the news department will help on projects tied to stories such as a war or stock market crisis. The Clinton inauguration was an example.

In a 10-day period around January 20, 8,961 people called a special SUNDIAL inaugural service. Of those, 1,032 heard excerpts from John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech, 854 heard Maya Angelou's complete poem, 712 heard F.D.R.'s speech, 595 heard poet Robert Frost's poem at the J.F.K. swearing in and 519 heard President Clinton. There were 28 features in all.

The first year here, there were 1,135,252 calls in seven months. Then, in 1989, 3,098,591 calls; 1990, 3,278,395 calls; 1991, 4,195,326 calls and 1992, 4,375,607 calls.

A majority of the 1992 SUNDIAL calls were to Stockline and Dow Jones. Other favorites were lottery and sports results. One feature, "It's Your Call," an unscientific Evening Sun reader survey, was dropped in 1992 because editors felt pressure groups could manipulate results.

In the new world of faxes, cable, TV phones, interactive computer systems, pay TV movies, encyclopedias on a disc and computers recognizing handwriting, Ms. Stewart says she will still read newspapers. Johann Gutenberg's movable type was also a pretty good gadget.

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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