Can computers take the paper out of 'newspaper'?
Fido is getting a little competition in the news-delivering business.
In a few US households, the newspaper is no longer fetched by the proverbial dog, but by a ''retriever'' of a different sort - a home computer terminal.
The newspapers ''fetched'' by home terminals look much different from the familiar paper-and-ink products. Linked by telephone connection to a giant data bank, personal computers can quickly deliver ''electronic newspapers'' - video editions of the country's most prestigious papers - to America's living rooms.
Electronic newspapers are probably years away from capturing a significant portion of the market, and some media analysts doubt that they will succeed at all.
In the 18 months since the experiment began, more than 19,500 households across the nation have subscribed to the electronic newspaper service being tested by the Associated Press (AP) and CompuServe Inc., an Ohio-based computer company. Another 200 to 500 households are hooking up each week, according to CompuServe's Rich Baker.
To read any of the 11 participating papers, consumers need a home terminal, a telephone, and a subscription to the CompuServe information service. ''Subscribers'' plug their terminals into the phone jack, dial the local CompuServe number, and wait while their calls are connected with the data bank in Columbus, Ohio. The computer lists an index and sends subscribers the news reports they request via telephone lines.
It is hard to tell how attractive the news service is, Mr. Baker says, since it is part of a package that includes home banking, electronic mail, and video games. ''Newspapers are not our most popular service, but they're not to be taken lightly either.''
Certainly, the start-up cost of electronic newspapers is likely to keep some customers away - at least for the time being. Aside from an initial investment upward of $400 for the terminal plus a one-time $30 subscription fee, viewers pay $5 an hour - or 8.3 cents a minute - each time they use CompuServe. Thus, if American reading habits carry over into the new medium, the average 20-minute newspaper perusal would run viewers $1.66.
Despite the costs involved, some computer-industry gurus already are sounding the death knell for the print medium, predicting it will become obsolete when personal computers and electronic home information systems swamp the market. The newspaper of the future, they believe, will be able to:
* Disseminate the news at speeds rivaling radio and television broadcasts.
* Provide more thorough accounts of news events. Reporters, no longer limited by the number of column-inches available in each edition, can write magazine-length stories for readers with a special interest.
* Become home libraries for readers. Never to be thrown away, newspapers are stored electronically - and cheaply - in the data bank. (A reader in St. Louis, for instance, can learn the name of that Italian restaurant reviewed in last month's Post-Dispatch by asking the computer to recall the article.)
Despite the apparent advantages of video-news, other media specialists doubt that electronic gadgetry will replace completely the printed news page.
''There is a fundamental skepticism of whether people will want to substitute a computer for their newspapers,'' says W. Terry Maguire of the American Newspaper Publishers Association. ''A computer doesn't go . . . on the bus or subway train.''
The printed page has advantages other than mobility, Mr. Maguire says. Readers can quickly ''scan the front page'' to stay informed of the big news events, a convenience not available on a terminal screen that shows one story at a time, he said.
Many media representatives, like Maguire and Maxwell McCrohon, vice-president of the Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune, the Fort Lauderdale News , and other papers across the country, say computerized editions and their print counterparts ultimately will coexist in the marketplace. Video news ''will be an enhancement - an addition - to newspapers,'' not a replacement, he says.
The electronic newspapers offered today are a ''primitive percursor of what is ahead,'' Mr. McCrohon says. He envisions a sophisticated information package that includes color electronic photographs, coded indexes for easy access to stories, and even two-way communication that allows readers to ask the newspaper questions.