WASHINGTON – The reading habits of Washingtonians have changed dramatically over the past three years, something I’ve witnessed first-hand riding the Metro subway into the district.

When I first started working here in early 1999, most commuters had their faces buried in the folds of broadsheets like the Washington Post, the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Now I see more of them reading computer print-outs of stories from online versions of those old newspapers, as well as from new independent newssites such as WorldNetDaily.com and DrudgeReport.com.

It’s made me rethink the conventional wisdom I bought into last decade about newspapers not going the way of the dinosaurs.

Newspaper-publishing consultants assured me, as deputy editor of Investor’s Business Daily, a national broadsheet, that readers would never substitute online news for newspapers.

“The print version is easier to read, more portable, more convenient,” said analysts with New York-based Veronis Suhler & Associates.

Of course, that was before wireless portables and fast, cheap ink-jet printers.

I was also told that new media rarely cannibalize old media. History shows they tend to coexist.

To be sure, TV didn’t destroy radio. In fact, thanks to Rush Limbaugh, it’s bigger than ever now. And cable hasn’t destroyed broadcast television (although the Fox News Channel is making inroads into the Big Three’s evening and morning news audiences).

But I just don’t see how newspapers can flourish once aging baby boomers and their old newspaper-reading habits fade. And once PCs saturate all households and offices.

The Internet is the cheapest and most efficient medium ever created for distributing information. It’s the Gutenberg press squared – no, cubed. Thus Internet publishing has both a cost and content edge over newspaper publishing.

But don’t tell that to newspaper-industry forecasters.

Back in 1997, Veronis Suhler claimed that newspapers aren’t threatened by newssites, because “the print version is less expensive than the online version.”

Huh? With the exception of the Wall Street Journal and a few others, most electronic versions of newspapers don’t charge subscriptions (and the main reason offline papers do is to cover circulation costs). And most people read newssites at work, on a company-paid PC.

Any publisher who has had to buy newsprint in bulk from the “blue-eyed Arabs” of Canada’s paper cartel, as my old editor-in-chief liked to call them, knows that newspapers are not cheap to produce – or deliver, especially nationwide.

The production and distribution costs of Internet publishers are miniscule by comparison. The miracle of digital news is that serving 10 million readers – anywhere in the world – costs scarcely more than serving 10. No paste-up or production. No newsprint. No presses. No satellite dishes. No airfare or postal rates. No trucks or vendors. No news racks. No union contracts. Newssites don’t have such overhead.

Oh, and those million-dollar offset color presses? Forget about them. In cyberspace, color is free. So are photos, for the most part (as are AP and other wire stories).

Even book publishers are catching on that online publishing removes virtually every cent of production and distribution costs. When Simon & Schuster offered Stephen King’s 66-page novella “Riding the Bullet” over the Internet, in digital form, the company sold 500,000 copies of the $2.50 book in 48 hours. Demand overloaded servers at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.

Banks, too, are discovering the savings power of bits over paper and ink. It’s five times cheaper for them to process electronic debits than checks.

But here’s the coolest part. The cheaper cost of Internet publishing is revolutionizing journalism by offering readers more information – unprocessed and unfiltered – than newspapers ever could, even if they wanted to.

The pundits didn’t see that, either.

“The on-line media may be used for personal communications, transactions and surfing for entertainment,” Veronis Suhler analysts said, “but they are not functionally competitive with the daily newspapers.”

Nonsense on stilts.

For one, newspapers, constrained by space as they are, rarely can print long documents that support their stories. Imagine the extra newsprint and press costs the Washington Post or USA Today – or your local paper, for that matter – would incur if they printed some of the official government documents WorldNetDaily.com has linked to in its stories.

By providing the public the full text of original documents – such as classified reports, confidential memos and full speech transcripts – newssites such as WorldNetDaily.com let people reach their own conclusions.

In cyberspace, bias is harder to hide.

It also allows more room for background information. Seldom in newspaper stories do readers get the full context. Newssites, on the other hand, can provide links to previous, related stories in the text of the story, so readers can quickly – just by pointing and clicking – familiarize themselves with the history of the topic and develop a deeper understanding of the issues.

With space not a concern, newssites can even add it between paragraphs to break up otherwise dense text and make stories easier to read.

Newssites are also not limited by time – which is perhaps their key competitive advantage, given the ever-quickening pace of news and events and the overall compression of history these days.

Newspapers have to wait 24 hours to update the news, while many newssites can now compete even with the major news wires and CNN. WorldNetDaily, which can post a story at any time, has beaten AP and Reuters, as well the networks, on breaking stories by hours.

Many old newspaper hands can hear the death knell.

Listen to veteran columnist Mitch Albom: “Newspapers need to realize that paper is slow, printing is slow, delivery is slow – and slow is death. I envision a newspaper of the future that not only runs on-line, but runs around the clock.”

The awakening for him was Sept. 11.

“The first attacks in New York City, came at 8:45 a.m. Many morning newspapers, at that point, were still yet to be read. On the West Coast, many were yet to be delivered,” said Albom, longtime sports columnist of the Detroit Free Press and author of “Tuesdays with Morrie.” “But with the first plane’s fiery impact, all those newspapers were rendered obsolete. Who cared about anything else at that point?”

“Newspapers’ best hope is not on paper, it’s in the air – cyberspace, the Internet,” he concludes in “The Last Editor” by Jim Bellows.

Newssites, moreover, can also instantly correct information if needed, whereas newspapers must wait until the next day to more accurately inform their readers.

Online news also is more customer-driven than print news.

At the end of the day, webmasters can tally the number of page views by article. It’s a quick, yet scientific way to measure reader interest in topics and bylines, among other things, so that editors can better tailor the news to the wants of information consumers.

Finally, cybernews is organic.

Unlike newspaper articles that end up in the trash, stories on the Internet can be easily revisited in archives and forwarded by e-mail. The multiplier effect of e-mail, in fact, has been known to crash a politically incorrect story through the old media gatekeepers where it can get the attention it deserves.

It’s called guerrilla journalism, and WorldNetDaily.com is leading the charge.

In short, Internet newspapers are instant and international, as well as more interesting, in-depth and inexpensive than pulp newspapers. They are the future of journalism, and you are a part of it.

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