Now, however, newspapers seem to have struck gold in their latest efforts of delivering news to readers in new ways. Online.
In the past, the newspapers had to create a demand for such services like fax and videotex. But the Internet and online services offer a new wrinkle: The demand already exists.
Newspapers now understand readers'-and advertisers'-desire to become interactive. So far, more than 60 newspapers have gone online with America Online, Prodigy or a private online service, and more than 100 are expected to be online by the end of the year.
Just to get a feel for what's out there:
The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News reside on America Online;
the Atlanta Journal & Constitution, the Dallas Morning News, Los Angeles Times and Tampa Tribune can be found on Prodigy;
the Detroit Free Press and Gannett Suburban papers live on CompuServe;
the St. Louis Post Dispatch and Orange County Register will be on Delphi's new Internet services; and
the Washington Post and will be up this summer on AT&T Corp.'s Interchange Network.
Subscriptions to the commercial services range from about $8 to $15 per month, plus additional hourly usage fees of between $3 and $5.
In addition to residing on commercial services, most newspapers, including The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal either have a site on the Internet or are workingto build one soon.
"Right now there's a feeling of anarchy in the craze to get online, and newspapers are helping to figure it all out," says Randy Bennett, director of new media at Newspaper Association of America.
"Online editions are not only a great way to attract more advertisers, but they preserve the newspaper's role in pulling the community together, aggregating information and providing a market for buyers and sellers," says Mr. Bennett.
The New York Times Co., an accepted leader in the industry, is dedicated to finding ways to satisfy both readers and advertisers in its online efforts. The publishing company's service, @times, is launching classified advertising in automotive, employment and real estate on both America Online and its soon-to-be announced web site.
Additionally, the company is focusing on ways to creatively integrate advertising and editorial. For example, "Parallel Lives" is an online soap opera sponsored by Nabisco Foods Group that weaves Nabisco products into the storylines.
The Times Co. also is close to signing a similar deal with a major communications company.
"Online services offer a real ability to create a community and allow people to interact with each other and advertisers," says Henry E. Scott, VP for new media/new products in the information services group at the Times Co.
"Although newspapers will initially turn to their existing advertisers, being online can help papers attract advertisers who aren't normally interested in newspapers," he says. "An advertiser standing alone on the Internet or another online service won't be as effective as if they were housed in say The New York Times site. We deliver an interested audience."
Regardless of editorial content, what will be key to the success of any newspaper's online efforts is its advertising. The beauty of being online is the interactivity it allows advertisers to have with readers.
"Traditional newspapers can't intimately connect the advertiser with the customer," says Frank Daniels III, VP-executive editor of The Raleigh News & Observer, whose online service Nando.Net is one of the most highly read and respected services.
According to Mr. Scott, while no service has emerged as a leader, Nando.Net is the service most papers look to for ideas when they are going online.
"The relationships online are more complex and more intermingled, which signifies a shift in the way people involved with newspapers-including readers, writers, editors and advertisers-will interact with each other," says Mr. Daniels.
Knight-Ridder'shas been on America Online with its Mercury Center for close to two years and on the Internet's World Wide Web for five months.
Even though access to the Internet traditionally has been free, Knight-Ridder is just weeks away from charging users to visit the Mercury Center; subscription price isn't yet finalized.
"We could take a bath with this one, but we think subscribers should pay a little, and advertisers should pay a lot," says Bob Ingle, VP-new media for Knight-Ridder.
"We want to create real value in our content that keeps readers coming back, thereby giving exposure to our advertisers," says Mr. Ingle, adding, "It is service for which people are willing to pay that will have the most value to readers and advertisers."
For example, the Mercury Center began charging World Wide Web users on April 17 for access to full-text articles of the San Jose Mercury News, comics, newspaper archives, photographs and news updates throughout the day.
"Although we realize charging web users is a risk, we feel we can charge for our service," says Chris Jennewein, director of Knight-Ridder's New Media Center.
"It's probably the most complete and coherent online newspaper site out there, offering breaking news, full-text articles, comics, photographs and all kinds of searchable archived information."
Knight-Ridder also is working on a project in Philadelphia called Pennsylvania Online, which will be a service combining editorial and advertising of Knight-Ridder's Philadelphia Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer with Advance Publications' The Star Ledger in Newark, N.J., The Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.and The (Trenton, N.J.) Times.
"Even though some of the papers might be competing with each other, overall we believe both companies can offer their customers a better service if we work together than if we work competitively," says Mr. Ingle.
Most publishers acknowledge that newspapers won't live or die on revenue generated from online services, and don't expect online profits to account for more than 10% of the total revenue over the next 10 years.
However, "newspapers need to be in the position in the long-term to offer information to the community in any form they may want it," says Mr. Bennett.
"The real threat may be on the advertising side," he adds, "where everyone will compete for the same ad dollars and newspapers will have to maintain their role as information providers and capture some of those ad dollars."