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Online News: Will Older Americans Adapt?

Ron Pampreen plinks keys with his index fingers as he navigates a digital page of the Detroit Free Press at a senior center in Birmingham, Mich. No worry he’ll spill Cheerios and OJ on the keyboard here at a training session, but the possibility looms large in his mind as he contemplates catching up on events over breakfast at home without his daily newspaper.

“Reading newspapers online is weird and new,” says Pampreen, 77, who came with hopes of teaching his wife, Pat, the ropes of online journalism. The couple have shared daily news bits over breakfast for almost 50 years and don’t intend to haul the computer into the kitchen and risk making a bigger mess. Yet new habits must emerge.

This month, the Pampreens’ newspapers — the Detroit News and Free Press, with a combined daily circulation of nearly half a million — reduced home delivery to three days a week and are now publishing an e-edition daily. The couple, like many of their neighbors and friends, are adjusting their well-honed reading habits lest they miss out on the news of the day.

A changing medium

Many older Americans are, or will soon be, in the same position, grappling to embrace new technology as economic changes force newspapers to put their content solely or partially online — or shut down for good. “Daily circulation dropped 4.6 percent nationwide during a six-month period in 2008, the biggest drop seen in the last 20 years,” said Neal Lulofs, senior vice president of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which tracks newspaper and magazine circulation. Newspaper advertising revenue also dropped 17 percent from 2007 to 2008, equaling a $7.5 billion loss.

As a result, more than 80 U.S. newspapers have dropped at least one publication day since Jan. 1, according to news accounts. Some major dailies, such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a 140-year-old newspaper, now publish their content completely online. Others have ceased printing altogether: the Rocky Mountain News, the Baltimore Examiner, the Albuquerque Tribune and the San Juan Star among them.

Such change isn’t absorbed so easily, especially among avid newspaper readers. People can watch local news, listen to talk or public radio, but print newspapers fulfill a distinct niche and a ritual experience. A daily newspaper has information often difficult to find anywhere else — local school board stories, the comics, advertisements, the crossword and Sudoku puzzles, movie listings, classified ads and death notices.

The disappearance of this kind of information can be upsetting for those who no longer have their newspapers. David Techner, funeral director at Ira Kaufman Chapel in Southfield, Mich., said the loss of print is a giant problem for older people, who worry they won’t learn of the death of friends, neighbors or members of their faith community.

To help them out, Techner started an e-mail blast, which goes out each day at 5 a.m., to notify subscribers of who died, details of the arrangements and where the family prefers contributions be sent. Subscribers can click on Techner’s website and gain access to the digital daily newspapers in Detroit to learn of other deaths in the region. “It is remarkable how many people are signing up for the service,” Techner says. “They have followed birth and death announcements all their lives and don’t want to stop now.”

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