Grudgingly. Kicking and screaming. That's how the laggards in the newspaper community will come to the Information Age.

But they will come - and they will come before the new millennium begins. Or they will no longer be their communities' information leaders.

My favorite study in recent years was a survey completed a couple of years ago that said some 60 percent of newspaper executives either believe or wish that the Internet will go away.

I've met many of those 60 percent in my travels around the country. Some of their comments:

"It's a fad."

"Another C.B. radio."

"I tried video text and it didn't work."

"I tried audio text and it didn't work."

"I've seen every fad and they've all come and gone and the same thing will happen with the Internet."

Reminds me of media critic Jon Katz's comments in the spring 1998 issue Design Magazine:

"The decline of newspapers has not been caused by competition from new media technologies, but by a virulent and much more deadly virus, one that I have just isolated and identified. It's called Raging Old Fartism…"

Harsh comments. Indeed, overly harsh and overly generalized. Many in our industry have been progressive leaders in the on-line information business.

But face it - there's a grain of truth in Katz's criticism, especially when applied to the newspaper executives who have opposed any Internet presence for their papers.

Those executives need to understand that the Internet is not going away.

The World Wide Web is doubling in size every eight months. More than 72 million adults in the United States and Canada now have regular access to the Internet. Over 1 million web pages are being created daily. There are now more news pages on the Internet than news pages in newspapers.

Business is being conducted on the Internet - over $1 billion in the last quarter of 1997 alone, according to Forrester Research. America On-Line, the nation's largest Internet service provider says its e-commerce business is doubling every year. Nielsen Media Research said last spring that nine million Americans had made purchases over the Internet.

The largest newspapers have already made the Internet plunge, although only USA Today's on-line issue is among the top 10 web sites in the nation (No. 10, at last count).

It's important to remember that newspapers don't have to - and shouldn't try - compete on a national scale on the Internet. They need only to dominate their own markets - and that is a goal that is relatively easy to accomplish.

The key is LOCAL, LOCAL, LOCAL - news, features and advertising. That's the same niche community newspapers are playing right now.

I can almost guarantee than any newspaper that publishes a good on-line newspaper will receive 10 to 20 times more page views or visitors than any other web site serving that same community.

That means anyone in a given community who wants a strong presence on the World Wide Web ought to be linked off or be part of the local on-line newspaper. That on-line newspaper will be the best place to advertise on-line.

Most newspapers depend heavily on classified ad revenue - some papers receive up to 40 percent of their revenue from classifieds. This is an area that is vulnerable to on-line competition as classifieds are relatively easy to publish on the Internet, and New Media companies are looking to classified ads as a potential source of revenue.

But these New Media competitors are at a great disadvantage compared to newspapers: They have no classified base to start from.

Newspapers have a base - their print classifieds plus the historic role of being the business the community depends on to publish classifieds. If newspapers publish their classifieds on the Internet I think they will prevent any local competitors from successfully entering the market.

Equally important is the fact that readers like to use on-line classifieds.

Our statistics consistently show that 33 to 42 percent of the page views for community on-line newspapers are for classifieds. This is great news. It means that readers of on-line newspapers are shoppers. This has tremendous implications for on-line advertising: Advertisers naturally want to be where the shoppers are.

Also vulnerable to neglect are directories, such as business, restaurant, lodging, professional, entertainment and other guides historically published by newspapers.

During my days of selling newspaper advertising, the worst month of the year occurred when the phone companies sent in Yellow Page advertising representatives. The phone book directory ad sales folks are good, well-trained and know how to suck up money from local advertising budgets.

The good news was that the phone directories were printed but once a year.

With the new technology, the phone directories and Yellow Pages can be published 24 hours a day, seven days a week 52 weeks a year.

Newspaper publishers who don't strike first with their own on-line community directories will be vulnerable to a strong competitor - on-line phone directories that can offer summer clearance sales to the local drug store, etc.

To learn about the future, we should look at the past.

When the San Jose Mercury News launched the first on-line newspaper, the Mercury Center, nearly a score of years ago, the first results were disappointing: Modems were slow, software cumbersome and the public's response was lukewarm. The vast majority of people accessing the Mercury Center resembled Ham radio operators - older adult males who didn't buy much of anything. Especially disappointing in the early days was the near universal avoidance of the Mercury Center by women, who do most of the consumer buying. Advertisers were turned off.

All that has changed. Modems are vastly faster and easier to use; software is greatly advanced and almost to the end-user; access is becoming ubiquitous, including via TV sets; women are projected to soon be the majority users on the Internet; web commerce is growing at huge rates. Major advertisers, such as Proctor & Gamble, say they are going to start spending much of their advertising budgets on the Internet.

The Internet is likely to reach 30 percent saturation of American households three to four times faster than did radio and television.

Most newspaper executives realize, some grudgingly, that they can't dominate their local information market without a solid Internet presence.

My prediction: the newspaper executives who have dragged their heals regarding the Internet will change their minds before Jan. 1, 2000. Those who don't will either retire or be replaced.

(Marc Wilson is general manager of the International Newspaper Network. He can be reached at 1-800-579-6397; at P.O. Box 1744, Bigfork MT 59911; or at marcus@townnews.com)