Newspapers, don't leave the Internet holdouts behind

The Baltimore Sun

The Sun, like many newspapers, is shifting more content from its traditional print edition to its Web site. Economic pressures have forced newspapers to reduce their print content, and editors are trying to mitigate that loss by posting this missing material on their Web sites. These moves also appeal to journalists already worried about growing competition from Internet news sources.

But some print edition readers can't or won't use the Internet and are frustrated because certain of their favorite items have been deleted from their newspaper. I've talked to a number of these frustrated subscribers in recent weeks, and it's difficult to know how to respond. Many have told me they either can't afford to buy or don't want to use a computer.

That means they won't be able to access the growing online world of newspapers.

A longtime reader from Essex summed it up: "If you are putting more and more material online only, you are making it less and less desirable for those of us who buy your newspaper every day. We represent the readers who have stayed with The Sun through thick and thin. We are living with what we get - but it doesn't mean we like it."

For generations, newspapers have served a vital function, providing lots of information that was important to individual readers such as stock market listings, puzzles, comic strips, horse racing statistics and TV listings. But newspapers have had to cut costs in the face of steadily shrinking advertising revenues - revenues that are decreasing in part because many readers and advertisers are moving to the Internet.

In my view, the situation is analogous to the postwar years, when television was beginning to replace radio as the dominant medium for news and entertainment. Those who wanted "the big picture" simply had to buy a TV set.

The transition to the Internet, however, is more difficult for some readers than the transition to television 60 years ago, because going online requires a degree of technical fluency. I worry that newspapers too often assume (or want to assume) that most subscribers read newspapers online as well as in print. This is not so, according to readers I hear from.

For a number of Sun subscribers, the relative low cost of a newspaper is one reason they've kept reading all these years. Some simply don't have the economic wherewithal to buy and learn how to operate a computer.

The Sun's decision to transfer virtually all of the stock market and mutual fund listings to its Web site made sense. Most trading and information-sharing is now done online and the vast majority of investors are computer literate. The amount of newsprint that newspapers saved also has been significant.

Reducing the number of TV listings in the daily paper also made sense because there are other ways to get this information - notably the 24-hour all-channel listings provided by cable TV outlets. Again, the newsprint savings were sizable.

The Sun's decision last month to offer horse racing entries and results only online is, in my view, another matter. Many people interested in horse racing do not own or have access to a computer, and the newsprint savings are minimal.

William Crawford is one of dozens of readers and horse-racing fans who have complained. "I'm really saddened and disappointed by this," he wrote. I wonder what there is to stop The Sun from eventually doing the same thing with baseball box scores." Although the likelihood of this happening is remote, I can understand how he could envision this kind of scenario.

Lewis Rutterberg said: "And now - the unkindest cut of all. No entries, no results. The lifeblood of racing fans."

Other readers have noted that certain columns and articles about homes and gardens, entertainment and business are now available only online.

Said Mrs. Peter Kavanagh: "We do not own a computer, thus we are being 'locked out' of these articles. To us, this is very unfair. We do not believe that more readers have computers than those who do not. Or is it just the elderly and poor who don't have them?"

Reader June Goldfield said: "I'm puzzled. We all know that newspapers are fighting for survival. Why, then, are we so often sent to The Sun's Internet site for further information? Wouldn't it make more sense to do vice versa, send Internet readers out to get a newspaper?"

Paul Block wrote: "I'm getting annoyed with directions to website for additional information about articles in your print editions. For example, the front page of the Business section of 8/10/2007 instructed me to go to your Web site to read an article about Apple Inc. If I wanted to read your Web site, I wouldn't subscribe to your print edition. Maybe The Sun should decide who their audience is."

Mr. Block, The Sun has decided who its audience is. It's both print subscribers and online readers. The continuing challenge is to make the newspaper work for two distinct groups of readers.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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