Smaller U.S. newspapers last to get caught in Web

Publishers: They have embraced the Internet, even though using it loses money for many of them.

October 25, 2002|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

Any day now Jules Molenda will launch a Web site for the daily newspapers he runs in New York state's Hudson Valley and he's pleased to know he won't be the last in America to do so.

"You mean we're not the very last ones?" says Molenda, publisher of the Hudson Register-Star and the Catskill Daily Mail. "I thought we were the caboose here."

No, some other newspaper will be the last to leave the 20th century and have to turn out the light. Fewer than 100 of the 1,400 U.S. dailies and several hundred community weeklies have resisted setting up news sites on the Internet, or in some cases abandoned ones they started.

But newspapers that publish only with ink and paper are dwindling by the week, with about 2,200 now online.

The recent converts are succumbing to pressure from customers while devising ways to avoid losing money from the start, unlike larger publishers who poured vats of cash into a future that never arrived as planned.

And as often with technology, the laggards have benefited from the trial and error of the pioneers.

Small newspapers that have recently added Web sites have been more aggressive in seeking paid subscriptions for them.

Because of software innovations, papers need little time and scant manpower to reformat news and ad files to accommodate the Internet - a far cry from years ago when media chains added hundreds of electronic employees they later had to let go.

Some small papers also are among the first to experiment with paid "electronic editions" that resemble their printed versions. The electronic versions can be counted toward circulation totals, which affects the price of advertising.

"The smaller markets have been more aggressive since they are concerned about losing their print audience to the Web," said Rob Runett, manager of electronic media analysis for the Newspaper Association of America, a trade group based in Vienna, Va.

"At one time, there was talk from the Bill Gateses and Ted Turners of the world that this would be the end of newspapers. For some fourth-generation newspaper publishers, that was daunting. Plus, it required all kinds of new skill sets that they didn't have."

Small and midsized papers have occasionally been more adept online than the major metropolitan dailies - or Gates himself, who gave up his attempt at an online entertainment news service in 1999.

Among the innovators, the 65,000-circulation Topeka Capital-Journal in Kansas has received national awards for Web design. In Southern Maryland, the weekly St. Mary's Today provides an online, audio link to the police and fire department scanner for readers who thirst for local crime news, and crusades against drunken driving by listing every DWI arrest in its area.

The Wall Street Journal, owned by Dow Jones & Co., is regarded as one of the rare commercial successes for newspaper Web sites, with about 650,000 paid subscribers.

`Digital' staff cuts

Other large media companies, including the New York Times Co., the Washington Post Co. and Tribune Co., owner of The Sun, have cut back "digital" staffs and are beginning to see profits or pare their losses.

Some have also massed forces to create classified-ad sites such as to fend off, a Web-only source of help-wanted ads that has begun taking aim at blue-collar categories and the smaller markets.

According to a survey by the World Association of Newspapers in Paris this year, 38 percent of North American newspapers reported a profit on their electronic operations, 26 percent broke even and 31 percent are losing money.

That's an improvement from two years ago when more than half of all papers were in the red on the Web.

This isn't the first time the industry has scrambled in response to the obituary technology has written for it.

After radio arrived in the 1920s, newspapers halved the number of stories on their front pages to stress depth of coverage over immediacy.

A generation later, television caused newspapers to further reduce front-page headlines and add photography and color. The latest threat won't be the last one either: For example, wireless pages that can be updated electronically - a newspaper you'd never throw away - are in development.

But for now the Internet is the innovation causing the hand-wringing and brainstorming.

Some hesitant

"A lot of the smaller papers have been hesitant to make heavy investments in the Web because they haven't seen a business model that shows a return," said Shaun Dail, an executive with Olive Software, a Denver company that develops Internet software for newspapers. "It was something they wanted to do. They were waiting for the right tool."

Marc Wilson, who helped found one of the companies that provide technical support for newspaper Web sites, said when he first discussed the Internet with publishers in the mid-1990s, many responded by saying they hoped "to retire before all this happened."

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