The Internet may, in the end, crush the American newspaper.

Advertisers ditched the classifieds for craigslist long ago. And the industry's on-line strategy — give away the product for free — doesn't seem to be working out too well.

But here in li'l Rhody, a li'l experiment is underway. Just last week, the Newport Daily News announced that it would restrict online access to subscribers only.

That's right, readers will have to pay for the news.

Reaction to the move, judging by comments posted on the Daily News Web site, is not so good. "It's a little bit of an uphill battle, in terms of public perception, because people are used to getting news for free," said Sheila Mullowney, executive editor of the paper.

But if the biz is to survive, the battle must be joined. That is, if it's not too late.

The industry's decision to give away stories on the Interzone seems breathtakingly dumb in retrospect. But there was, in fairness, a certain inevitability to the move.

The world was moving online. It was all about attracting eyeballs. And the Web was bound to be a moneymaker, someday, right?

The execs at the Daily News, a 163-year-old newspaper, had some hesitation from the start. The paper has always withheld a few popular items from the Web site — letters to the editor, the honor roll, the police blotter — in a bid to keep readers buying the more profitable print edition.

And there were some stories that just never made it to the Web. But the sampling of news, sports, editorials, and columns that did appear was enough for some. "People will take whatever they can get for free," Mullowney said.

The newspaper's circulation, like that of just about every newspaper, declined — from some 14,000 or 15,000 a decade ago, Mullowney said, to about 11,000 now.

That drop, of course, is not as dramatic as the freefall afflicting some of the nation's larger newspapers, including the Providence Journal.

After all, small newspapers pushing hyper-local news are often the only source for the sort of City Council and sewer system coverage that excites a certain kind of reader.

But the blow was real. And with advertising revenue down, too, the Daily News has shed about half its reporting staff over the last 10 years.

Of course, abandoning the Web altogether is not a real option. So the six-day-per-week, afternoon newspaper is turning to the e-paper, an online version that looks exactly like the real thing. Readers click on a story of interest and a text box pops up.

The launch of the new tool, available for free for about a month, has created some confusion — the Daily News' Web gurus had to plant a big red missive atop the mock-up directing visitors to "Click Here for the E-Paper." They have also posted lengthy instructions on navigating the electronic version.

And the new model seems to promise less in the way of online, breaking news, though the paper is weighing some sort of e-mail alert program for subscribers.

But the Daily News, which will continue to offer some photographs and online polls on its site for free, seems less-than-concerned about its clunky online interface and return to a slower-paced news delivery.

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