As they struggle in an increasingly competitive information marketplace, newspapers around the world are experimenting with new ways to generate revenue and expand their readership. Most now have online editions, which can be read on the Internet. And in recent months, several American papers have augmented their online editions with electronic newspapers.
The arrival of the World Wide Web was supposed to be the salvation of newspapers. After half a century of losing readers to television, publishers envisioned luring them back with free news on the web, with the costs covered by advertising. And it worked, up to a point. Readership soared, but advertisers stayed away: they didn't want to pay for ads that took too long to appear on screen and didn't look good once they got there.
To compensate, a few newspapers began charging a registration fee for access to their websites, only to see readers desert them in droves. Vin Crosbie, president of industry consultant Digital Deliverance, said online readers expect news to be free.
"First off, they're not willing to pay for it because they don't have to pay for it, since this is one global newsstand nowadays if one party tries to, one publisher tries to charge for it, people simply go to another. General news has become a commodity, basically, where you have so many titles available. So if the New York Times tries to charge, then people will go to the Washington Post, if the BBC tries to charge, they just go to CNN. It's a great leveler," Mr. Crosbie said.
As a result, free news became the industry standard. By contrast, electronic newspapers are available only by subscription. The advantage of these 'e-papers' is that they are portable. They can be downloaded easily onto a laptop computer, and carried around to be read when there is time.
Scott Heekin-Canedy, vice-president of the New York Times, said e-newspapers are for people on the go. "It's for people who want to read the New York Times in newspaper format and either can't find it easily available where they live in the United States or around the world. We know of many examples where they're business travelers who don't necessarily get easy access to the Times and they want to be able to read it while they're travelling, so they'll load it onto their laptop," he said. That's a big incentive for subscriber Anthony Iovine, a seminary student in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
"The New York Times is an extremely big newspaper, a lot of advertisement and it goes some days hundred of pages and on Sunday it's just a massive edition, it's at least three, four pounds of paper. Downloading it, you don't have that problem, it's all just blips and beeps inside of a computer that you can open up and close whenever you need to," Mr. Iovine said.
Subscribers like Louisiana law professor Michael McAuley have said that once you master the software, the electronic edition is actually easier to read than the paper version.
"You learn how to manipulate the commands on your computer so you can skip from page to page quickly. You can expand and magnify parts of the paper, you can print out with great ease, a very handy format to come in. I'm increasingly now wanting to receive newspapers in that type of format," Michael McAuley said.
The Christian Science Monitor also publishes an electronic edition, and its format allows readers to print out the entire issue on regular paper, if they don't want to read articles on the computer screen.
"We frankly wanted to give the reader more options," explained Mr. Wells. Jonathan Wells is the Monitor's Director of Electronic Publishing. "In some cases we had some concerns about whether people wanted to read in a newspaper format the entire edition on a small screen, and so really that was the basis of our thinking."
While electronic newspapers are portable, and don't have ink that rubs off on your fingers and clothing, they do not offer an important tool available to readers of online editions: immediate links over the internet to additional information and multimedia files. But subscribers to the electronic edition say it offers other advantages. For Anthony Iovine, the absence of links is more than offset by the e-paper's layout which, unlike the on-line version, looks exactly like the edition on the newsstand.
"The layout gets you a lot more on the electronic edition. Sometimes important stories, while the Times puts them at the top of their screen, you don't feel like they are that very important. When you look at the electronic edition, and you flip through the metro section and you flip through the national pages and you see what is deemed very important it looks a lot different, as a reader," Mr. Iovine said.
While no one expects readership of electronic editions to even approach that of online or paper, it does offer a news-hungry public on the go a traditional newspaper in a 21st century format.