In July, a Wall Street Journal reporter got advance word that Merrill Lynch & Co. President Herbert M. Allison Jr. was abruptly resigning, a fleeting scoop that almost certainly would not last until morning.
So the Journal's World Wide Web site broke the story for its 300,000 subscribers, exploiting the Internet velocity that often seems to leave ink-and-paper products in the dust.
As the journalistic precincts of cyberspace turn increasingly competitive, newspapers are transforming themselves into 24-hour news machines, in part by asking their print reporters to do double duty. The result has altered a tradition-encrusted newsroom environment that has never had to deal with round-the-clock deadlines.
The Washington Post's Web site last week unveiled its "P.M. Extra," a 1 p.m. edition that features a half-dozen or so breaking-news updates from Post reporters. Last Wednesday afternoon, for example, washingtonpost.com featured early dispatches from political reporter Dan Balz on the presidential campaign trail in New Hampshire and Southeast Asia correspondent Keith Richburg in Indonesia, describing how he was hit on the back with the blunt side of a machete during a rampage by armed militiamen.
The New York Times plans to ask its staff to work with its "continuous news desk" in producing online updates, beginning in October.
"This requires a great cultural change because people working for morning newspapers have gotten used to writing one story a day, spending all day reporting and writing it as close to deadline as they can get away with," said Bernard Gwertzman, editor of the Times site. "If we ask a reporter to give us something early, it's not what they're used to."
On the Web, newspapers are competing with a bewildering variety of offerings, many of which provide updates from the Associated Press or Reuters as well as their own material. These include MSNBC, BBC, Fox News, Headbone.com, the Weather Channel and Yahoo.
In July, according to figures compiled by the firm Media Metrix, the New York Times site drew 2.7 million visitors, followed by USA Today (2.5 million), The Post (1.7 million), the Los Angeles Times (1 million) and the Journal (976,000). The Detroit Free Press and San Jose Mercury News also host popular sites. Most are just three years old.
"You're building a relationship with a new generation of young people for whom newsprint holds no magical qualities," said Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.
With news having become a ubiquitous online commodity, major newspapers are trying to extend their reach by serving up "branded" news from their own staffers.
"At 9 or 10 or 11 in the morning, things begin to happen, and we need to let people know what's happening," said Douglas B. Feaver, editor of washingtonpost.com, which employs 35 journalists in its Arlington office. "I'd rather let people know what's happening from the Washington Post newsroom than to run the same AP wire story I can read on several other sites."
Half the visitors to the Post site are from outside the Washington area, where the newspaper is largely unavailable. Washingtonpost.com expects to bring in $17 million in revenue this year but, like most such sites, is losing money.
Washingtonpost.com offers some Web-only material, such as a column by Joel Achenbach and regular online chats with Post staffers, which draw hundreds of questions. The site also provides advance excerpts from such feature sections as Food, Travel and Weekend.
Politics is among the most popular subjects, Feaver says, but local news also has a strong online following. When a dynamite truck recently overturned at a Springfield interchange, he said, "we almost equaled Starr Report numbers that day."
These baby steps toward continuous coverage have been greeted with some skepticism in the Post and Times newsrooms, where most reporters are not compensated for the extra work. While no staffer is forced to contribute, some have expressed concern that writing dual stories could cut into their reporting time. Others are worried about giving away competitive information, although the papers say they generally don't plan to scoop themselves by running investigative pieces on the Web.
"We're continuing to investigate how you change the 3,000-year-old mentality of a once-a-day print cycle," said Jim Schulte, editor of USA Today's online edition. One route: Since the paper doesn't publish on weekends, Schulte noted, on Fridays, "USA Today has all these reporters dressed up with nowhere to file" but who can now use the Web.
Media analysts question whether the lure of publishing at a moment's notice will lead to sloppiness. Last year, the Journal and the Dallas Morning News both rushed stories about the Monica Lewinsky scandal onto their Web sites, both of which were retracted soon afterward.
Each newspaper plays to its strengths. The Journal, the only major newspaper site to charge an annual fee--$59, or $29 for print-edition subscribers--offers a wealth of stock market data, portfolio tracking and personal finance information.
"There's a lot happening in the business world around the globe 24 hours a day, but we also keep an eye on general breaking news," said Neil Budde, editor of the Journal's Interactive Edition. He says that some Journal reporters already file during the day for the Dow Jones news wire, and that in other instances his editorial staff of 60 might be "picking the brain" of Journal staffers to provide analysis.
The Journal site took in $7.9 million in revenue in the second quarter--an 89 percent increase over the previous year--but remains in the red.
USA Today's site provides story summaries of a few sentences for those who don't want to click on the full article. "What we've found is that short is good," Schulte said. "Users are time-crunched. They're coming in like hummingbirds and not hanging around. The average visit is 11 or 12 minutes." The site, which employs more than 60 staffers, includes some original material on finance and sports--and, says Schulte, is turning a modest profit.
One strength of the New York Times site, Gwertzman said, is that "people who are looking for foreign news gravitate toward the Times." He said, "We also do well with highbrow culture, since New York is kind of the center of that." The site plans to beef up its Wall Street coverage through an investment in TheStreet.com.
The Times site, with an editorial staff of 30 journalists, is losing money. But the New York Times Co. is seriously considering spinning off its Web operations in an initial stock offering that could produce a sizable influx of cash.
Many online operations are striking e-commerce deals. At the Times and USA Today sites, for examples, users can buy books under an exclusive arrangement with Barnesandnoble.com. In the fall, washingtonpost.com plans to set up "storefronts" and point-and-click buying for area firms through an alliance with an outfit called Bigstep.com.
For some smaller newspapers with strictly regional appeal, the Internet romance may be fading a bit. "There was this great gold rush a couple of years ago where everyone felt under pressure from their board of directors to go online," said Vanderbilt's Paulsen. "Now a good number of papers are scaling back because it's very hard to make a profit."
Newspaper executives say most users sign on from their offices, with traffic peaking at lunch hour as it rolls across the nation's time zones. The majority of visitors don't subscribe to the paper, although the Times, for example, is selling 3,000 subscriptions a month online.
Clearly, these Web sites are moving toward a world in which the word "edition," itself a throwback to the hot-type era, will become obsolete. "We're definitely looking at more editions, maybe a market close in the late afternoon," said Feaver of washingtonpost.com. "These are not unusual concepts in the broadcast world."
For Gwertzman, feeding the Web's bottomless appetite is reminiscent of his days at the old Washington Star in 1959, when afternoon newspaper reporters routinely filed several stories for later editions.
"It's old-fashioned journalism," he said.
The top newspaper Web sites, according to Media Metrix:
Number of visitors in July, in millions
New York Times: 2.7
USA Today: 2.5
Washington Post: 1.7
Los Angeles Times: 1.0
Wall Street Journal: 0.98