Natalie K. Munn
December 15, 1993

(Tables have been removed and online windows have been presented as text rather than images in an attempt to keep the file size of this paper to a minimum. If you'd like a hardcopy of the paper, please send email to,

More and more newspapers are going on-line to offer daily news, back issues, and other services directly to home computer users.

Online editions of major newspapers recently blinked into existence in St. Louis, Chicago, San Jose, Calif, and elsewhere, and they are expected within months in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Austin, Tex., and many other cities. . . . The move toward home-computer newspaper services has accelerated this summer as two of the country's biggest newspaper chains, the Times Mirror Company and Cox Enterprises, announced plans for electronic services at their newspapers, including Times Mirror's Los Angeles Times and its New York Newspaper, Newsday. These announcements followed decisions by three other major chains, the Tribune Company, Knight-Ridder Inc. and the Gannett Company(William Glaberson, NYT, 8/16/93).

Many newspaper executives see this as a step toward remaining viable in an upcoming age dominated by electronic media. Those in Library and Information studies question whether this is another step toward the disintermediation of libraries.[1] As the audience for these services grows, libraries in all sectors will begin to question whether to house and maintain their own newspaper collections. Simply put, for libraries it is a question of whether to offer access to information via computing resources or material collections.

Libraries have played a role in access to newspaper back issues for some time. Paper based conservation efforts, as well as elaborate optical/micro graphic solutions, have been developed and employed in an effort to accommodate researchers' need for information contained in back issues of newspapers. Librarians and other information professionals have also made an effort to develop and adapt digital storage of text based materials for access and retrieval. Unfortunately, many of these solutions have been very expensive to access and maintain and most are not used by the general public on a regular basis. Most newspaper databases "were designed more for professional researchers than for regular readers"(Mossberg).

These library mediated solutions are not very compatible with the habits of newspaper readers. "Newspaper reading is overwhelmingly an activity that takes place inside the home: 89% of all readership occurs there"(Bogart, 157). While the audience for newspapers has generally preferred to read the paper at home, most access solutions developed by libraries and other third parties, like database providers, has emphasized and relied on use outside the home by paid researchers. These services are marketed to professionals and while they "have powerful means for finding things in past issues," "searching can be complicated"(Mossberg). More importantly, "they lack the organization, attractive layouts and visual clues that paper publications offer for browsing and reading a current issue"(Mossberg).

In contrast to information professionals who use expensive equipment to access high-priced newspaper databases through third party vendors, household computer users offer a promising test market for enterprises that want to provide electronic information and entertainment services directly to the home. As the number of household computer users rises, there is an incentive to reach this new market and to provide information in a manner that is less expensive and more easily accessible than that in use by librarians.

Among the developments that encourage newspaper executives is a sharp increase in the number of households owning computers with the telephone -line hookups that are necessary for obtaining data services. That number has grown from about 300,000 nationwide in 1982 to more than 12 million today (William Glaberson, NYT, 8/16/93)

Newspapers are well positioned to make a success of on-line services to the home. They are used to dealing with households as well as corporate customers. They generally have automated production and billing systems and in most cases the information they seek to sell has been digitized during the production process.

Newspapers provided the first generation of on-line service users and newspapers were also among the first generation whose material was distributed by database providers. "The industry has learned from the experiences of about a dozen newspapers that have been experimenting with electronic services over the last decade . . . and more than 100 major newspapers have been supplying information by computer to business clients who pay premium rates for that access"(Glaberson). This gives them an advantage as they move to go on-line themselves. They are able to act quickly and often enter collaborative arrangements with existing on-line services rather than creating their own. This saves newspapers start up costs for development and equipment, and it can shorten time-to-market as well.

Mercury Center was proposed by Mercury News Executive Editor Bob Ingle to colleagues at Knight-Ridder Inc., which owns the Mercury News, in April of 1992. (Mercury Center Press Release 5/10/93 p 2)

Mercury Center began in May with a computer service offered through America Online, a nationwide on-line operator. Mercury Center Online, which has 5,000 members, costs $9.95 a month and includes five hours of on-line time. (SJMN 11/26/93 1E)

The Mercury News is not the only paper to piggy-back on a provider like America Online. The Chicago Tribune also went with America Online in 1992, thereby avoiding equipment and administrative overhead. The Trib's level of expense for is far from prohibitive. Only four Chicago Tribune employees are needed for the paper to staff the Chicago Online project. Other on-line services vying to carry newspapers' services are Prodigy, Compuserve, Genie, and Delphi.

The household, as I mentioned earlier, is acknowledged by newspapers as their primary market. Lessons learned by newspapers over the years will help them to make the transition to successful on-line delivery. Newspapers know that "When the prices go up, readers drop out"(Bogart, 59). They will seek to price their services to homes in a much different way than database vendors have priced comparable services for information professionals. Taking advantage of existing on-line services already used by home computer owners is one way that newspapers are seeking to keep the costs down for consumers.

Newspapers have vested interest in getting their product directly to the home.

The importance of home delivery in assuring regular day-in, day-out readership is shown by the fact that 64% of all subscribers had read a paper on all five of the past weekdays, and another 14% of them had read it on four of those days. By contrast, 35% of single-copy purchasers had read a paper on all five of the last five weekdays, and 32% had not read a paper on any of the last five weekdays(1987) (Bogart, 68).

In spite of their concentration on the household market, American newspapers have encountered difficulties in distribution and declining penetration of the household market since the early 1940's(Bogart, 16). "In the 1970's the rate of newspaper circulation fell behind the expansion of population and households, and that decline continued in the following decade"(Bogart, 4).

Explanations for this decline are many, but they can be generally described as the result of urban decay, suburban lifestyles, and changes in household character and composition. The mobility of all people, but most especially of the young has had a negative impact of newspapers. Home delivery has become a steadily more demanding and expensive task in both the cities and the suburbs. Distances between houses in the suburbs "are greater and routes become longer, with no greater yield," while in the cities "it is harder to approach, sell, and deliver newspapers to customers who live in apartment buildings"(Bogart, 64).

Getting the paper to the door is an increasing challenge. As people increasingly live in multi-unit, multi-storied residences delivery becomes more difficult. "In 1982, 63% of people living in separate, single-family residences had home delivery, compared to 2% of those living in high-rise apartments of six stories or higher"(Bogart, 67). Distribution in inner-cities has become problematic. "It is harder to approach, sell, and deliver newspapers to customers who live in apartment buildings, guarded by doormen and front door locks"(Bogart 64). Blacks are one of the groups hardest hit by the disintegration of the delivery system in the inner cities. By 1987 82% of the black population lived in metropolitan areas and 60% in the central cities (where only 27% of whites live). Newspapers have to find a better way of getting the paper to the door.

It has become impossible for juvenile carriers to deliver papers to many homes. In the suburbs a car is necessary to cover the distances between homes. In the city most parents do not want their children out in the dark, during early dawn hours. Many newspapers have turned away from juvenile carriers and recruited more adults in an effort to improve distribution. However, whether the carrier is a juvenile or an adult, they are unlikely to stay on the job for long. "On papers of 50,00 circulation and over, the equivalent of an entirely new carrier force must be recruited each year to replace those who leave . . . On papers between 25,000 and 50,000 circulation 4 out of 5 carriers must be replaced; on smaller papers, 7 out of 10"(Bogart, 66). This high turn over makes it seem unlikely that newspapers will be able to solve their distribution problems by altering the make up of the carrier force. On-line distribution may be one alternative solution.

The papers with the highest circulation: Wall Street Journal and USA Today are currently available on-line. USA Today, with its weekend edition has the highest circulation of all: 1,632,345 -daily & 2,003,620 weekend. Circulation for Wall Street Journal is a close second with 1,852,967 daily. A table showing average circulation for other papers with on-line services available(or soon to be available) to home computer users will follow. A table showing some descriptive information about these newspapers' on-line services will also follow. As these listings show, most papers with on-line services today are big city dailies with over 50,000 circulation. Because of their high circulation, these papers are in a good position to advertise the benefits of on-line news services.

Who's using on-line newspapers? "The most recent ventures, which are also the most sophisticated, are still so new that little is know about their consumers"(Glaberson). However, from the tables above we can predict that they are from metropolitan areas served by strong newspapers with relatively high circulations. They are probably newspaper readers to begin with. This should come as no surprise. For the time being, newspapers will probably be their own best advertisers when it comes to marketing on-line news services. Gene Quinn, the general manager of the Chicago Tribune's service, sheds a little more light on the topic, noting that [Chicago Online users] "are generally affluent people, many of whom have some history as Tribune readers. They appear to be using the service for personal rather than business needs"(Glaberson).

What's it like to use an on-line-newspaper? Walter Mossberg writes that "Mercury Center isn't as easy to use as the paper edition," but he admits that it "is an improvement over past efforts to present newspapers electronically, a step in the direction of better on-line news"(B1). Access to Mercury Center is just an icon away for subscribers, and as close as a keyword search away for any America Online user. Mercury Center subscribers simply click on the Mercury Center Icon that appears on their AOL Main Window, and the Welcome to Mercury Center window appears. (Details of Mercury Center/AOL Subscriptions follow in Appendix A.)

There are several icons to choose from on the Mercury Center opening window: Extra/In The News, Advertising, Entertainment, Bay Area Living, Sports, Business Communication, News Library, Enter Code, and Text Search.

Another feature of the Welcome Window is a central What's New Today window featuring selected items and news stories that can be accessed by double clicking on the title of the desired item.

  What's New Today  [11/22]              

SKY DIVER HITS PLANE                       
JFK: IMAGE OR MEMORY?  11/22/93            

The stories that appear in the What's New Today window are frequently more current than the stories that appear in the morning paper. For example, on Monday November 22nd, clicking on the "Sky Diver Hits Plane" headline would have taken the user to an AP news wire story about an accident that didn't make it into the print edition of the San Jose Mercury News until the following day.

Clicking the Extra/In The News icon from the Welcome window takes the reader to a window that offers a jumping off point for access to the daily paper. The layout is similar to that of the opening window. (Once you can successfully navigate Mercury Center from the opening window interface, subsequent windows offer no unpleasant surprises). Again, there is a also a text based list of choices.

Extra/In The News  [11/22]           

About Mercury Center                 
About In The News                    
In The News Message Boards
Talk to the Mercury News
Letters for Publication
Editorials & Commentary
Science & Medicine

The rest of the screen is taken up with icons. The Today's Paper icon is for accessing the daily paper on-line. Other icons assist readers to access news by geopolitical regions: Local/State, National , and International. The remaining icons and their functions carry over from the opening window (News Library, Text Search interface, and the Enter Code feature). Clicking Today's Paper takes the reader to a series of selections that conform with expectations about print newspapers.

Access to the daily paper is organized much like the print edition: Users choose what to look at by clicking on a selection in a window that lists the paper's offerings by subjects that roughly correspond to the sections in a print newspaper.

Mercury Center Today  [11/23]           

Front Page                              
Local & State                           
Editorials & Commentary                 

Here's what the front page offering looked like on 11/22.

Mercury Center: Front Page {11/22]                   

STRIKERS SEEK A LITTLE RESPECT                       

This virtual front page offers access to the articles that appear on the front page of the print edition. The titles correspond to the headlines in the print edition, but unlike headlines in a printed newspaper they aren't differentiated by attention getting variations in type and font size. Reading on-line stories is different too.

Unlike front page stories in the print edition, these stories don't jump or continue from the front page of the newspaper to the inside of the paper. You'll never read part way through an on-line "front page" story and then find yourself referred to another page somewhere in depths of the newspaper, by a "continued on page #" message.

When the layout of USA Today's first print editions was developed, the decision to avoid jump stories on the front page was a priority meant to give the paper a different look in the news racks and simultaneously give uninterrupted stories to the readers. Whether jump stories turn-off a significant number of readers is questionable, but there is no doubt that jumps result in interruptions for the reader.

Three out of four readers (73%) say that if they are reading an article they turn to the page on which it is continued and keep on reading it. Another 16% stay on the first page and read the jump when they come to it. Only 6% report that they usually do not read the rest (Bogart, 313).

Whether USA Today's "no jumps" policy was partially responsible for the paper's success, is unknown, but it did give the paper a different look and feel from traditional metropolitan dailies. One thing is for certain, on-line news service users, like USA Today readers, are more likely to read a front page story from beginning to end, without interruption.

What other differences are there between traditional print and on-line newspapers? SJ Mercury News print editions usually offer a bar above the newspaper title that includes illustrations, photos, and text referring the reader to stories inside the paper. One familiar item that's missing is the weather. Another is the index that usually tells readers where to find what they're looking for within the paper.

Presumably the function of many of these missing features is partially absorbed by the icons on the Mercury Center windows. What else is different? There are no "editions" of Mercury Center, so the windows aren't dated like the pages of a paper. Dates correspond to stories alone.

The most conspicuous absence on-line is photographic. The photos featured on the front page of a print edition are often the first things that catch a reader's eye and attention. Color photos on the front page have an especially strong appeal. "Media General's John Mauro found that a color picture on the front page sold more copies than the identical black and white picture in an adjacent vending rack"(Bogart, 205). The loss of photographic content is the most disappointing aspect of on-line newspapers in general. Many on-line news services, like Mercury Center, have incorporated color into the user interface, in much the same way as print newspapers use spot color for headlines. However, photographs present a myriad of challenges for on-line services geared toward the home user.

Most users do not have the appropriate software for displaying images, and images take a longer time to transmit than text because of their exponentially larger file size. The transmission time necessary to download a color, front page caliber photo is at odds with the billing scheme of most on-line services that charge by the minute. On-line users do download images, and services like America Online facilitate this activity. However, most photos available on-line are available from public institutions or amateur photographers who provide the images knowing that they will not receive any money from users and that there is little control over how the image will be used. This situation is not compatible with the way that newspapers traditionally manage their photographic collections, or with many newspapers' practice of paying for the right to use a photograph in a particular print edition. As image viewing software becomes more available to the home user, newspapers may provide images on-line to accompany stories, but this will not be practical for newspapers until there is a mechanism in place to account for remunerating photographers, and ensuring fair use of photographic work.

In any case, most on-line news services' goal is not to provide an alternative to the print edition. For example, Mercury Center Publisher Larry Jinks clarifies: "We're not offering some either-or product here. We're responding to the interests of a lot of people in our circulation area, and we're doing it in a way that enhances the Mercury News"(Mercury Center Press Release 5/10/93, p. 1). Mercury Center's aim isn't replace the newspaper, but to market and provide information services that complement the print edition. Bill Mitchell, Mercury Center's Director of Electronic Publishing, explains: "A lot of readers have a deeper interest in a particular subject than any newspaper can satisfy. Mercury Center can address those deeper interests by combining the power of their computers with the resources of their newspaper"(Mercury Center Press Release 5/10/93, p. 2).

Mercury Center offers more than just the full text of the daily newspaper. Query interfaces, communication tools, and immediate access to information that doesn't appear in the print edition of the newspaper combine to fulfill Mitchell's promise to users who want more information. Mercury Center's Enter Code feature prompts the user for codes that follow articles in the print edition of the paper, allowing users to access items related to an article in the print edition. The Text Search interface allows users to query recent news items. The News Library interface offers a query environment for fee based access to back issues of the Mercury News.

Other features available from the main window offer additional ways to get more information from Mercury Center. Advertising, Entertainment, Bay Area Living, Sports, Business, Communication: Clicking on an icon available from the main window takes users to the Advertising section of Mercury Center.

About Mercury Center Advertising        

Advertising Message Boards              
Computing Marketplace
Professional Services Guide
Place A Classified Ad
Place An Online Ad

Advertising determines both the size of a print newspaper and the size of its news hole. "The 'news hole' in newspaper parlance, represents all the contents of the newspaper other than the advertising"(Bogart, 52). "The news hole takes its name from the fact that the paper is made up each day, page by page, with the advertising set in place first, so that editorial matter, and especially late breaking news can be fitted in"(Bogart, 52). In contrast to the advertising dominated format of a print newspaper, Mercury Center has no intermixed layout of news and display ads. You are either looking at news, or looking at ads. You can't come across the ads by accident -you've got to actively choose to view an advertisement on Mercury Center. The divergence from an advertising dominated layout is one of the most unusual aspects of on-line news services like Mercury Center.

The advertising landscape of Mercury Center is affiliated with the print edition of the Mercury News, but there are some differences. Display ads from the body of the paper are not available on-line, but San Jose Mercury News classified advertising can be placed and queried by on-line users. Regardless of how classifieds are placed, they also appear in the print edition of the Mercury News . Mercury Center solicits on-line-only advertising under two categories: Professional Services and Computing Marketplace. These ads are sold by the month, but the text of the ads can be changed weekly.

Mercury Center's approach to the on-line newspaper accommodates and enhances the classifieds. Users can query the classified listings using personalized criteria and then use all the capabilities of their computing systems to sort, print, or distribute the content of classified ads. Mercury Center's emphasis on classified advertising is wise. The classified ad functions in a way that appeals to buyers, sellers, and those just watching the market. Bogart describes classified advertising as a "class by itself" relating how "in the course of a week in 1979, 58% of all adults consulted newspaper classified ads at least once"(Bogart, 50-51).

Imagine going apartment hunting on-line. You could read only the ads that related to the area or price range you had in mind. You could even narrow the field further if you had pets or needed a garage by eliminating all apartments that didn't fit your criteria. This would be a tremendous time saver, because you'd only have to consider the places that fit your needs. You could even sort the properties by locale, then email the list to your spouse or roommates to see if they approved. Finally, you could print out the list before you went on your drive-Bs or use it as a reference when you called to make appointments to see the apartments.

It's easy to picture the benefits of using the classifieds on-line, but what about other types of newspaper advertising? Some services, like Prodigy run national ads, but so far the on-line environment is not dominated by national advertising campaigns. In the print newspaper, ads share the layout with news, but on-line environments are different because they often include communication modules that allow users to talk to or correspond with other users in real-time. They also include many opportunities for users to play games either on their own or in competition with other users. These activities seem to require various degrees of privacy or concentration that tolerate very little interruption.

Steering away from an advertising based layout may be an advantage for on-line services. Prodigy user Fran Smith complains, "Imagine your monitor divided horizontally: Across the top three-quarters: Everyone!" Help me!! I am begging you to read this and maybe give me some support to get through this!!!" Directly below: "1994 Chrysler LHS1 . . . The American Luxury Car is now in the fast lane"(20).

It is as difficult to cope with ads on-line as it is when you're on the phone and the person you are talking with is simultaneously watching TV. It is harder to concentrate, and more difficult to take the telephone conversation seriously. The presence of ads can distract and annoy an on-line user. Ads can undermine the very activities that keep people on-line in the first place by driving away. Smith quotes one ex-Prodigy user she encountered on America Online: "The real motto of Prodigy is 'Shut up and Shop.'"(22). Advertising on-line wont be successful if it drives its audience away.

In spite of reactions like the Prodigy user's, it seems that newspaper advertising would be missed if it were absent from an on-line newspaper. Leo Bogart explains that "a variety of surveys have shown that newspaper advertising is especially welcome to readers and that it is perceived as informative and useful, much as editorial content is"(49). Let's take a look at some representative information from the surveys:

75% of the men, and 84% of the women affirmed in 1961 that "they like to look at newspaper ads even when I do not plan to buy anything" (Bogart, 49-50).

In 1974, three out of four women (in five cities) agreed that, "When I read the newspaper, I am about equally interested in the advertising and news stories"(Bogart, 50).

One reason that newspapers have come through the television revolution as well as they did, is that people don't LIKE television advertising. People prefer the advertising they encounter in newspapers to the advertising they encounter when watching TV.

The public's attitude toward newspaper advertising remains largely positive and newspaper advertising is valued by consumers more than advertising in any other media. There are a couple of serious reasons for this type of response. TV advertising is mistrusted, and advertising through TV media has served knowingly or not, to alienate people from their communities both commercially and politically.

What does the public gain from newspaper advertising? From any advertising?

The advertising newspapers carry is more than their largest source of income; it also represents one of the most valuable services they offer readers. Shopping is not only an important activity; it is a form of entertainment. And shopping wisely and economically is a skill on which most people pride themselves. So there is an important utility to newspaper ads that keep people in touch with the marketplace and that save them time and steps before the visit the store(Bogart, 49).

The utility of newspaper advertising, especially the utility of the classifieds, is valued by consumers.

However, the less utilitarian the ads, the less benefit there is for the consumer. Bagdikian writes that "for most heavily advertised goods it is doubtful that advertising reduces prices"(145). He goes on to state that "heavily advertised industries create prices that are 15 percent higher than under truly competitive free enterprise" and comments that "it is no coincidence that industries considered to have artificially high prices and high barriers to entry by competitors include those industries that advertise heavily in the mass media--liquor, drugs, soaps, autos, photo supplies, cereals, soft drinks, cigarettes, toilet preparations, tires and tubes, large appliances, chemicals, and petroleum products"(146-147).

Perhaps in reaction to the hidden costs of products advertised heavily on TV, people are distrustful of television advertising and seem to favor, even anticipate newspaper advertising.

A 1976 study for Sentry Life Insurance Company found that 46% of the public consider all or most of TV advertising "seriously misleading." For newspaper and magazine advertising the comparable figure was 28%(Bogart, 50).

Sixty-eight percent described newspaper advertising as believable or very believable, compared with 59% percent for radio, 52% for magazines, 34% for television, and 25% for direct mail. Fifty-three percent described direct mail advertising as unbelievable or very unbelievable; 44% said the same of television; 23%, of magazines; 18%, of radio; and 14%, of newspaper advertising. When asked to select the one most believable advertising medium, 42% named newspapers and 26%, television(1981)(Bogart, 50).

Mistrust of television obviously runs deep, but attitudes toward newspapers are more positive than can be explained by a reactionary impulse that favors the lesser of two evils.

A survey for the American Association of Advertising Agencies in 1976 found 68% of the public completely or mostly favorable toward advertising in newspapers and 40% favorable to advertising in television(Bogart, 50).

Among the public, 44% say they look forward to newspaper advertising; 29% to advertising in magazines; 10%, to radio commercials; and 9% to advertising on TV (1977)(Bogart, 50).

Advertisers aren't unaware of the public's good will toward newspaper advertising. "Advertisers in 1988 invested $31 billion in newspapers, more than in any other medium"(Bogart, 3). However, advertising expenditures for other media have increased at a greater rate than that for newspapers. "Since 1960, retailer's spending in newspapers (which remain their dominant medium) grew sevenfold [to 1987 levels], but they increased their spending in television by a factor of 25"(Bogart 42).

Advertisers may be investing heavily in newspaper advertising, but their concurrent, and relatively recent venture into TV advertising has played a significant role in how they advertise. TV broadcast rating services and ADI(area of dominant influence) based advertising have irrevocably altered the commercial and political landscape of America.

For many large package goods companies, whose advertising and promotion represent a major cost of business, it has been increasingly common to assemble sales data on an ADI basis in order to measure television advertising performance. From this it is only a small step to align sales territories to conform to ADI lines, thus making this the standard unit of sales planning, as well as sales analysis(Bogart, 43).

Ben Bagdikian writes that TV's "stunning ability to sell goods and its inexpensive transmission over thousands of square miles led to a competition between printed and electronic media to reach ever-wider groups of potential customers"(182). This competition is partially responsible for the reduced the number of daily newspapers available today.

"In 1920 there were 2,722 urban places and 2,400 daily newspapers in the country . . . By 1980 there were 8,765 urban places and only 1,745 dailies" (Bagdikian, 177). Les Krantz sums the demise of the daily up by noting that of papers around at the close of World War II "about half survive and a few new ones have appeared, most notably USA Today ; it has the highest circulation of all"(150).

The USA Today success story would not have been possible if American cities and their newspapers were thriving. But, Americans increasingly reside in the suburbs and business in America's cities isn't thriving. "Over 80% of all retail business in the United States is now conducted outside of the traditional downtown business districts"(Bogart, 41). The decline in central city retailing created a diminishing interest in central city newspaper circulation for advertisers and hence less advertising income for city dailies. Municipally based newspapers increased their circulation areas to follow their readers in the exodus to the suburbs, but for most "it was more efficient and less expensive to provide news coverage of municipal affairs in which most of their readers were interested rather than to attempt comparable reportage for all the towns and villages in which some copies were purchased"(Bogart, 39). Local papers, often weeklies, rose to fill the gap for suburbanites. But these papers often couldn't afford to carry the national news, sports, and financial information that readers had come to expect from big city dailies. The market was ripe for USA Today.

In spite of its success, USA Today hasn't replaced many papers from the readers' point of view. "On any given day, only 6% of the readers of this national daily (and 6% of the readers of the Wall Street Journal) were not also reading a local paper"(Bogart, 31). Not surprisingly, "smaller papers are rated higher than bigger ones on coverage of local stories" and while "the biggest papers get the highest ratings from their readers on value, interest, professionalism, and readability" they also get the lowest scores on "genuine interest in the community"(Bogart, 175).

Obviously people have an interest in local news that can't be satisfied by papers like USA Today. Online news services may rise to fill the gap. ""Many electronic editions will focus on the smallest of small-town news: school lunch menus, social notes, sewer board meetings -information that is important to readers but that big city dailies cannot find room for"(Glaberson). Another benefit of the on-line services is that many of their interfaces allow for direct communication between a "newspaper's readers, columnists, and editors: "the sort of interaction newspapers are often criticized for avoiding"(Mossberg, B1). This is a welcome prospect for many people who find news about their communities and an arena for timely local debate hard to find.

Ben Bagdikian argues that media practices in America have not fulfilled the information needs of citizens.

News distribution is no longer designed for individual towns and cities. American politics is organized on the basis of the 20,000 urban and rural places in the country, which is the way citizens vote. But the media have organized on the basis of 210 television "markets," which is the way merchandisers and media corporations sell ads. As a result, the fit between the country's information needs has become seriously disjointed(Bagdikian 188).

The average television station sends it signal over more than 10,000 square miles, or about fifty counties. Metropolitan dailies, not by coincidence, cover about the same territory . . . This means that the average metropolitan newspaper and television station dominate the news for an area that contains 1,3000 public policy making bodies and elects large portions of state legislatures and the U.S. House of representatives (Bagdikian, 188).

Bagdikian concludes that "the inappropriate fit between the country's major media and the country's political system has starved voters of relevant information, leaving them at the mercy of paid political propaganda that is close to meaningless and often worse. It has eroded the central requirement of a democracy that those who are governed give not only their consent, but their informed consent (192).

Can on-line services fill the gap? Only time will tell, but newspapers have a better chance of making it work than other newcomers to the on-line information services arena. This quote from Mercury New Executive editor Bob Ingle shows why:

The Mercury News has served as the center for news and information for this community for 142 years. It has been the way the region looks at itself. It has been a tenacious agent for solving problems in our community (Mercury News Press Release).

Newspapers have experience fielding opinions and offering an arena for public debate. During the recent garbage pick-up crisis in San Jose, traffic on Mercury Center ran the gamut from consumer complaint to finger pointing at public officials. Ingle wasn't far from the action, he responded to one user's exaggerated claims by commenting that "this wont surprise you, but people tell us stuff all the time that isn't true."(Mossberg, B1). On-line newspapers have one resource that other services don't have: reporters! They are able to follow up on leads and do fact checking, two important elements missing from many other on-line discussion formats.

Will on-line newspapers bring users closer to Bagdikian's ideal of informed consent? On Mercury Center "a long wire service story about President Clinton's budget plan was supplemented by electronic articles on the roles congressional Republicans and Democrats are playing on the issue"(Mossberg, B1). This type of information could be invaluable to citizens who find it difficult to research their congress person's activities everytime a new issue comes up.

On-line newspapers could supplement TV news, which by nature of its immediacy, usually doesn't come packaged as a narrative account with a distinct introduction, background information, argument, and conclusion or prediction for the future. Most TV news includes little, if any, background information. Similarly, TV news is not usually repeated or available for viewers to reconsider. On TV what a candidate does today is usually not accompanied by a clip describing what he did a month ago. And rarely, except in heavily edited retrospectives, do viewers see a composite picture of someone's performance over time.

As digital video editing techniques improve, TV news may be able to offer something more akin to a narrative account. Hopefully, there will one day be an equivalent of the public library that allows citizens to review TV news over time. Because voters are interested in whether their representatives act consistently over time (whether they betray the citizen-voter's trust) TV news media is not a sufficient vehicle for informed consent. The services provided by on-line newspapers may not be adequate to provide for all aspects of informed consent, but they are certainly a step in the right direction and could become an essential supplement to TV news.

In conclusion, I would like to point out the many ways in which access to on-line newspapers by home computer users can fill the information gap for Americans and improve the way people pursue their information needs. .

Online newspapers can be all these things, and more. My biggest hope is that on-line newspapers will set precedents for the caliber of information provided via electronic home delivery. As America's information infrastructure develops, choices will be made that will forever influence the cost to consumers as well as the content, and interactivity the system supports. I hope the example of newspapers (both print and on-line) will encourage people to expect and demand a reasonably priced solution that provides a balanced mix of accurate news and lively entertainment, as well as a forum for debate and a commitment to community and voter interests.


[1]Clifford Lynch comments that while "the impact of disinter-mediation during the 1980's has probably been overstated," that in the evolving network environment, however, the equation changes." He predicts that "libraries will be displaced from their current roles by the networks and the presence of information "owners" on the networks." Lynch describes a future where the "end user must purchase information from the information utilities or directly from the publishers." From: "Networked Information: A Revolution in Progress," In: Proceedings of the Urbana Conference on Library Automation .

Works Cited

Bagdikian, Ben H. The Media Monopoly. 4th ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

Bogart, Leo. Press and Public :Who Reads What, When, Where, and Why in American Newspapers. 2nd ed. Hillsdale, NJ: 1989.

Glaberson, William. "Creating Electronic Editions, Newspapers Try New Roles." New York Times 16 Aug. 1993.

Krantz, Les. America by the Numbers. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Mossberg, Walter S. "For Now, the Way To Electronic Papers Goes Through San Jose." Wall Street Journal 22 July 1993: B1.

San Jose Mercury News. Press Release. San Jose, CA: 10 May, 1993.

Smith, Fran. "Modem Times" San Jose Mercury News 28 Nov., 1993: West p 20.

More Reading

Hachten, William A. The World News Prism: Changing Media of International Communication. 1981. Ames, IA: Iowa State U, 1992.

This overview of trends and developments in international news is primarily intended as a text for students in journalism and communications programs who are concerned with how news is gathered and moves about the world(W.A.H.. World News Prism, xi).

Since the gist of my paper was to argue for the needed benefits on-line newspapers could bring to Americans living in a democracy, Hachten's work was not well suited to support my topic. Hachten pays lip service to a theory (democratic participant) which supports the notion that "small-scale, interactive, and participative media forms are better than large-scale, professionalized media"(23). But, he dismisses the theory in favor of "the Western concept"(business as usual) on the basis that "small-scale media are less able to check the abuses of government power whether at home or abroad"(23).

From my point of view, Hachten's failure to consider that interactive media does not necessarily have to be small scale, is a fatal flaw. However, since Hacthen's central question was not whether American media has failed American citizens, I cannot presume to judge how he would treat the topic. On the whole, his presentation of Western media and its influence on international news, was well done. I do agree with his claims that "people in the West would benefit from a better-balanced flow of news" and that "a much greater diversity of news sources for the world's media to draw upon is needed"(196 &198). But, who wouldn't?

Meyerowitz, Joshua. No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. 1985. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Meyerowitz takes a panoramic view of American Culture--its politics, its gender relations, its educational standards, its attitudes toward history and literacy, and much more. he's a fine example of an interdisciplinary risk taker . . . . by daring to stray beyond the safety net of a single discipline, he has wrought a fascinating quilt out of scraps most of us hadn't ever thought of stitching together. Television, itself, a patchwork of ideas, need his kind of analysis. -Christian Science Monitor

As the above review makes clear, Meyerowitz' work is remarkable. Although the title of the book implies that the topic of the work might comprehensively include on-line services, the author's focus is primarily on TV. There are references to computers and computing, but TV is the major media under Meyerowitz' microscope. While the book did not influence this paper in any significant way, I would still recommend it as an essential work on today's media and its impact on American culture.

Prichard, Peter. The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of USA Today. Kansas City: Andrews, McMeel & Parker, 1987.

The detail with which Prichard presents both the way newspapers are laid out and the way they are distributed is astounding. Prichard is also a Gannett man. He weaves an insider's story, narrating the rise of USA Today and the lives of the men involved until the story is a compelling drama. This combination of talents makes for a terrific read and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about the 20th century American newspapers.

Appendix A

(The text of this appendix is a downloadable file available on America Online from Mercury Center's Opening Window)


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