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Europe's Online Papers Test Web's Global Acceptance

November 04, 1996|TERRY SCHWADRON | Terry Schwadron ( is deputy managing editor of The Times and oversees, the newspaper's Web site

For European newspapers, the Internet is an alluring curiosity waiting to flower as a business. There is a lot of interest, but as a gathering of European news publishers in Switzerland reflected recently, there is also a lot of wariness about whether to follow American newspapers in a headlong rush to the World Wide Web.

It's interesting to look at the European experience as an early test for the belief that the Internet and electronic publishing are destined to become a true global mass medium. Is this hype, like so much that's connected with the wired world, or will there really be a broad-based desire to share information in organized, useful ways on a global scale?

In the United States, large segments of society still ask: "Why do I want to sit in front of a computer if I don't have to?" In Europe, that question looms even larger.

Europe has not yet bloomed for home computer purchases, though office usage is increasing at a rate that mimics the pace in the United States. Publishing, manufacturing and financial firms all share the same need as American businesses for instant, efficient ways to share business data.

The French experimented early with government-subsidized home installation of Minitel machines that were meant to offer local services and information. What the experience showed over time was that the biggest use turned out to be for dating services, notes Annie Cohen-Solal, a writer and former cultural attache who teaches European culture at New York University.

Although Minitel demonstrated that people will use electronic services when they are convenient and useful, it didn't offer much in the way of reasons for traditional newspaper publishers to turn to the Internet.

There are also basic cost issues in several countries over telephone service, wiring and billing that can make extended online sessions difficult to arrange. Without inexpensive costs for reliable telephone service, it will be nearly impossible for Europeans to subscribe to services such as America Online, for example.

European newspapers have begun to experiment with subscription- and advertising-supported Web services, but the obstacles there are even more daunting than they are here. European newspapers depend less on classified and display advertising than do their American colleagues, for one thing, and such advertising is seen by many as a key underwriter of electronic publishing.

Further, since many European papers are national rather than local news providers, it's not immediately clear how publishers will offer the highly localized services that many American Web publishers now believe are critical to financial success.

Is the audience local or faraway? Will people be drawn to the information published without access to local service?

Otto Spang of Berlingske in Copenhagen says building a business based solely on local readership would be a problem for his organization. Many other European editors and publishers seem to agree: Editors from a Swedish newspaper with a Web site said their target audience is emigrant Swedes living in other countries. An editor from the Irish Times, similarly, says the Net will enable his paper to reach a sympathetic audience in the United States and draw U.S. advertising.

An editor from the Jerusalem Post contends that his coverage is of immediate interest to everyone around the globe, rather than to a local audience. But is such global information-sharing even appealing for European cultures trying to resist further Americanization?

Several other editors said electronic editions would only reach a narrow elite. That might be enough to create a new business but will only underscore the clash of cultures inherent in so many aspects of the information age.

Such tensions are far more apparent in tradition-bound Europe than in the progress-loving United States.

On a narrow cobblestone street in the old section of Lausanne, Switzerland, that conflict stared me in the face. Inside storefront businesses lining the centuries-old walkways, workers were busily typing, designing and doing business on their desktop computers. Along the apartments upstairs was an assortment of digital television satellite dishes.

Just outside, several city employees were laboring on street repairs--laying the cobblestones by hand, placing them one by one on leveled sand along the steep incline. The juxtaposition was a telling analogy for our mixed expectations and our confusing times.

There are two Europes struggling, one that wants its place in the world of global commerce and electronic connection. And the other wants to remember that maintaining tradition is important, even at the expense of efficiency.

Perhaps Lausanne isn't Lausanne without its hand-placed cobblestones, despite the fact that this is clearly not the efficient way to repair the streets.

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