Adding to the industry's woes is the advent of new free sources of news, many of which appeal to younger readers and time-strapped families. Telecommunications billionaire Philip F. Anschutz started a free daily in Washington, called the Examiner, and has trademarked the name in other cities. Internet giants such as Google and Yahoo tout their ability to compile news from a number of sources, all for free with the click of a mouse.
Some papers, including The Washington Post, are trying to respond to the challenge by distributing free commuter tabloids, filled with abbreviated stories and entertainment news, as well as community papers. The Boston Globe's corporate parent, the New York Times Co., recently announced plans to buy a 49 percent stake in Metro Boston, a free paper that circulates in the New England city.
Several papers have launched special sections that are driven not by news but by a hope of capturing advertisers and certain groups of readers. Hoping to attract female readers, the Shawnee (Okla.) News-Star, for instance, prints a magazine featuring articles about Oklahoma women 10 times a year. It has a snappy title: "She's OK!"
In addition, papers such as The Post have been conducting extensive research, holding focus groups of non-readers to find out whey they don't buy the paper. Even though most Post survey participants seem to be up on the news, they don't get it from The Post newspaper, instead gleaning it from television, the radio or Internet sites, including The Post's, according to a study that began last summer and recently ended.
Readers and non-readers of The Post said they want more plan-your-day information on local news and entertainment, for instance. Also, they'd like the paper to be easier to navigate. More like the Web site.
The top reason given for not buying the ink-on-paper Post?
"This bulk thing," said Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., referring to the 12 1/2-by-11-inch Post newspaper, which weighs as much as seven pounds on Sunday. "It's the only way for us to present news plus advertising in that package. It can't get smaller and it shouldn't get smaller.
"When you go on the Web," to read The Post, Downie said, "it looks smaller."
Just building a Web site is no guarantee of instant profits. Papers are having a hard time convincing advertisers that an ad on a Web site is as effective as one in a newspaper and worth the hefty rates traditionally charged by big city newspapers. Executives said this adds to newspapers' vulnerability -- their traditional product on the wane and their new one slow to take off.
Chicago Sun-Times Publisher John Cruickshank, for instance, paid a visit to Hollywood studios late last year to sell them on buying ads for coming movies. His paper had just weathered a circulation-inflation scandal and he admitted that the Sun-Times' sales figures were not as high as had been advertised. But he pushed the paper's Web site, saying that its readership had increased over the year.