THE information superhighway is on hold. First, Bell Atlantic gave up on buying Tele-Communications Inc. After the Federal Communications Commission cut cable rates, Southwestern Bell and Cox Enterprises canceled their joint venture in late March, the day a federal judge derailed the merger of AT&T and McCaw Cellular Communications.
Now the Bell Atlantic trials of on-line movies in Virginia have run into engineering snags, and the Time-Warner experiment in Orlando, Fla., faces software delays. The pause in the rush to the information superhighway provides a valuable respite, time to reconsider the future.
At the height of the ``infobahn'' frenzy last October, Michael Crichton predicted newspapers would vanish within a decade. The brave new media, it seemed, would have no place for crude type you hold in your hands, for grainy images, for pages redolent and faded.
Newspapers are responding to this challenge with segmented marketing and zoned editions, linking readers to computer databases via telephones, bar codes, modems, faxes. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution recently announced ``Access Atlanta,'' an on-line ``e-paper'' that serves up color graphics and pictures. The Knight-Ridder Information Design Lab is developing a clean, flat electronic tablet to supply more information faster.
The lab's director, Roger Fidler, argues that these paperless products and tie-ins apply the lessons of history. Railroads declined, the reasoning goes, because executives loved the rails so much they ignored their core business: transportation. A similar nostalgia for paper, ink, and presses will cripple newspapers unless executives recognize their core business: information. Newspapers as we know them may not survive, but the business can metamorphose.
Concentrating on core business is the buzz in corporate management. Nexis and Lexis, the best-known electronic data service, is for sale. The Mead Corporation plans to give up the most profitable on-line service in the country to concentrate on its core business: making paper.
That raises an important question about newspapers: Is information really the heart of the business? Or is its core product something made of paper - the newspaper itself? Before the form vanishes into the electronic future, journalists and readers should consider the value of the paper product.
The newspaper, as an object, is first a sign of being in the know. Its symbolism permeates the culture. In novels, films, television, and even radio, the educated, the politically engaged, and the intellectual all carry newspapers. Young adults yearn to become readers because newspapers mark smart people connected with the world. Young people who use newspapers consider themselves better informed, even if they spend less time at it than others do with electronic news.
Newspapers knit society together. The front page supplies water-cooler talk at work, building common ground. The print encourages family members to clip and share items with loved ones. The news of unknown places confronts and connects people in ways that buttons and menus on electronic interfaces cannot.
Newspapers create a routine. From the onslaught of information, the newspaper makes citizenship manageable, distributing over its pages each day the citizens' duties to schools, churches, towns, counties.
Newspapers also fix memory, substantiate reality, and confer status. Who cares if your name gets on the Internet? Yellowed clippings document people's encounters with the larger world.
Newsprint is portable and fileable. It ends up in recipe boxes and on bulletin boards. It saves money at the store. Electronics can't do the same as cheaply, as efficiently, or as well.
The practical and mundane afterlife of newspapers - as wrapping paper, fly swatters, umbrellas, kindling, papier-mache, dropcloths - might fool readers into considering the form expendable. It isn't.
Whatever its competition as information, the newspaper can survive as a tool and material for building daily life, as a sign and symbol in culture, as a ritual connecting individuals to society, as memory. These roles are more powerful because they go unnoticed. They work on readers while readers concentrate on information or dream of other things - superhighways without traffic, weather, or collisions. These virtual byways must prove themselves. The newspaper already has. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.