By: George Garneau Publishers urged to be prepared to decouple from newsprint and embrace the electron to meet the needs of the new consumers AS DEADLINE NEARS, newspaper editors work feverishly at computer terminals editing videotape, sound, text and animated graphics into a multimedia package for subscribers to browse through over their morning coffee. The scenario may not be as distant?or as farfetched ? as it sounds, according to panelists who discussed ""The New Media Landscape."" Even newspaper executives urged publishers to begin now learning the tools of multimedia communication before hi-tech interlopers steal newspapers' dominance of local news. ""The electrons are coming. The electrons are coming,"" announced W. Russell Neuman, who holds a doctorate, teaches communications at Tufts University and works at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory. And those electrons, Neuman said of the particles at the heart of electronic information, will be arriving ""very soon."" In a dramatic warning to a meeting room crowded with publishers on the final day of the Newspaper Association of America's annual convention in Boston, Neuman uttered what for newspapers has been the unthinkable: ""Be prepared to decouple from newsprint."" He suggested that in the not-too-distant future, the Newspaper Association of America might more appropriately call itself News Association of America. While it is true that people have been predicting ? prematurely, at least so far?the demise of newspapers for years, it is also true that only recently have newspapers begun to acknowledge the need to adapt to a world in which increasingly powerful computers and digital communications are indeed altering the media landscape and giving consumers a new panorama of choices. One sign of the industry's realization was the panel itself. Put together by Concord (N.H.) Monitor president George Wilson and featuring eight panelists and 11 taped interviews with media leaders and thinkers, the session offered varying views of the brave new world of information communication that lies ahead. Nearly everybody agreed that multimedia electronics ? which already exist as information and learning tools on compact disks and interactive CDs?will become a growing force. The only real questions were: When, how and to what extent will newspapers participate? Likewise, it was generally stipulated that newspapers' most valuable asset is their dominance of local news. The challenge will be adapting newspapers' news-gathering, advertising and distribution systems to changes driven by microchips holding vast storehouses of information and by digital communications systems capable of transmitting it instantly. Computer and video executives had little to say in taped interviews about newspapers, whose image in the electronic world is one of a tree-consuming smokestack industry dating back two centuries. Even newspaper company executives acknowledged that they had to adapt ? and there was time like the present to start. ""Now is the time to begin getting on the train,"" said Cox Newspapers president David Easterly. ""That train is going to be leaving the station."" Newspapers that fail to change risk being bypassed by marketers who can reach their customers through other media, he said. Changes are currently being driven by consumer demand for entertainment, not for information. As Donald E. Schultz, professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, pointed out: Cable television customers pay at least $20 a month for service, whereas newspapers are worth no more than 35? or 50? a day to readers. The bald truth, as New York Times Co. planning director James C. Lessersohn put it, is: ""People are more willing to pay to be entertained than to be informed."" But changes transforming entertainment media will inevitably affect how news is presented. Already much has changed ? in technology and consumer habits?since Knight-Ridder tried delivering news electronically in a costly, cumbersome and unsuccessful videotext effort called Viewtron a decade ago. Today at least three large on-line services operate information systems aimed at home computer users. Ken Auletta, author, New Yorker magazine media columnist and former newspaper columnist, suggested newspapers take to heart the truism that they are not in the newspaper manufacturing business, but the information business. He urged publishers to think of technology ""as an ally, not as an enemy"" and to figure out how to let consumers use technology's power to get the information they want when they want it. The reality of multimedia was convincingly demonstrated by a product on the market today, Newsweek magazine's quarterly ""magazine"" delivered on compact disk. The Washington Post Co. product lets users browse by choosing which graphics, text and narrated pictures they want to explore. Ralph Terkowitz, the Washington Post Co. technology vice president who demonstrated the Newsweek CD, said multimedia technology will allow newspapers to produce a ""new kind of paper"" capable of delivering ""compelling"" content. ""That's where you should be putting your attention,"" Neuman told the publishers. He predicted that cheap home printers would be the next breakthrough and would allow readers to create their own newspapers, as portable as current ones. Auletta posed this key question, ""How much time do newspapers and print have?"" Beth Loker, Washington Post vice president, systems and engineering, answered that the multimedia daily newspaper ""is still quite a way off."" She suggested that in the meantime, newspapers ""assimilate the skills"" and ""learn to use the tools"" of multimedia communication. Panelist Jay Harris, Knight-Ridder Inc. vice president, operations, whose company is working to develop flat panels for displaying news, said newspapers need to establish ""relationships"" with customers through the ""transition."" What about newspapers' bread and butter, advertising? If you can read the news you want on a computer screen, or print it out at home, what happens to the ads that pay 80% of newspapers' costs? Billionaire software whiz Bill Gates, founder and chairman of Microsoft Corp., suggested that newspapers separate news from advertising, for example, by creating independent news and classified advertising products. Knight-Ridder's Harris warned newspapers to ""keep an eye on classified,"" because new technologies ""lend themselves to stealing that base"" and pose a ""more near and present danger"" than they do to other ad categories. ""It's going to happen,"" he said. ""Somebody is going to take classified electronic."" Lessersohn said the issue is not technology. Rather, it is, What do advertisers want? He acknowledged that already one relatively new medium, direct mail marketing, in the last decade or so ""has done tremendous damage to our advertising base,"" in part because it is targeted and because responses to it can be measured. Tribune Co. technology vice president Jim Longson agreed, urging newspapers to ""help advertisers be more productive?before somebody else does."" Calling electronic services ""the direct mail of the '90s,"" he said newspapers should act now to avert the damage direct mail has done to their revenue base. Easterly of Cox suggested newspapers form partnerships with the phone companies, which newspapers are now trying to limit by law from competing as information providers. In such partnerships, newspapers could become ""directors"" to other information services, which could, for example, include electronic yellow pages, he said. Easterly predicted that the federal government's ban on cross-ownership of cable TV and telephone systems in the same market would fall in the next couple of years, even further opening information markets. ""Sometimes you look like Luddites, beating up on cable and the phone companies,"" Neuman scolded the publishers in an allusion to the 19th century English workers who destroyed laborsaving machinery as a protest. He urged newspapers to recognize the ""cultural sea change"" taking place, and to reverse their policy and allow the phone companies to build modern information networks. After the panel, Neuman expressed concern that newspapers are ""overconfident in their standing as local news providers."" He expected a ""gradual"" transition from a mixture print and electronic media to all electronic. Neuman said one publisher later told him: ""You should come here every year and kick us in the ass."nE&P ? ""Now is the time to begin getting on the train. That train is going to be leaving the station."" ? David Easterly, president, Cox Newspapers ? Beth Loker ? Jay Harris ? The bald truth, as New York Times Co. planning director James C. Lessersohn put it, is: ""People are more willing to pay to be entertained than to be informed.""