As America's hunger for computers grows, newspapers probe online frontier Many firms offer home-delivery on PCs

August 23, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Centuries of industrial progress have scarcely altered the face of the newspaper. Its pages are ponderously large, ink still rubs off on your fingers and, aside from modern layouts and color pictures, it remains a make-over of Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack.

But the practice of printing words on flimsy paper is finally on the threshold of change. In homes across the nation, those words are appearing on computer screens.

Electronic home-delivery is happening in San Jose, Chicago, Fort Worth and Spokane. Meanwhile, Prodigy Services -- the nation's leading PC information network -- has announced deals to carry news from several papers, including The Palm Beach Post, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, The Los Angeles Times and The Sun.

It isn't the first time newspapers have tried the online route. Knight-Ridder's Viewtron project of the mid-1980s drew 20,000 subscribers, but expensive equipment rentals and user-fees turned it into a $50 million flop. A similar project at The Los Angeles Times, called Gateway, was killed in 1986 with only 3,000 users.

But America's appetite for PCs and PC interplay has grown substantially since. Prodigy, owned by IBM and Sears, Roebuck and Co., now has more than 2 million subscribers reading news, combing data bases, checking stock quotes and corresponding on bulletin boards and electronic mail. Right behind Prodigy are CompuServe, GEnie and America Online, among others.

"Newspapers are realizing that, although print won't be obsolete, they'll eventually have to supplement it electronically," said Ben de la Cruz, editor of the Electronic Directory Classified Report in Wilton, Conn.

Thanks to the power of computers, the electronic newspapers popping up across the country are more than just a daily compilation of news, sports and ads. Here's what subscribers are getting -- or will get -- from the vanguards of electronic newspapering:

* In May 1992, The Chicago Tribune started Chicago Online. The service is offered nationally by America Online and costs $9.95 a month for five hours of access, $3.50 an hour after that. Subscribers get same-day stories and classifieds from The Tribune, event calendars, sports schedules, restaurant, movie reviews, bulletin board and E-mail access.

* A year later, The San Jose Mercury News launched its Mercury Center. As in Chicago, subscribers pay $9.95 a month and receive software and five hours of online access to daily newspaper stories, wire services, classified ads, stock quotes, bulletin boards and E-mail. Additional hours cost $3.50 each.

* The Prodigy service, scheduled to begin initial offerings by year-end, will include news, advertising, community calendars, data bases of consumer information, bulletin boards and an E-mail link between readers and the newspaper. Subscription to Prodigy (which costs $7.95 or $14.95, depending on use) will not be a requirement. The service will cost about $6.95 a month, less for Prodigy users, with no time limit except on bulletin boards and E-mail.

* Dow Jones & Co., perhaps the granddaddy of delivering newspapers on PCs, offers the full text of 90 daily papers, including its Wall Street Journal, on a same-day basis through its News/Retrieval service. The drawback is cost. Subscribers have to pay $29.95 a month just to get the service, 84 cents a minute in access charges from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and $1.14 to call up and download a typical story during those hours.

Judging from the experience of Chicago Online, people who subscribe to the PC version of the newspaper have the same reading habits as past generations, when workers didn't sit down with their paper until they came home.

But here's the real transformation: It isn't necessarily news or ads that people are looking for. Many subscribers love to hop onto the system to browse through data bases or shoot the breeze with editors, reporters and other users.

"The primary usage pattern is during the evening on weekdays and throughout the weekend," said Gene Quinn, general manager of Chicago Online. "Mostly it's information hounds, people into personal computers or people who want to access Mike Royko's column. We're very much like an electronic bar stool or talk radio."

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