Extra! Extra! Hot Off The Faxes!

In 1939, more than 1,000 U. S. households were equipped with primitive facsimile receivers that electronically printed morning news overnight. In the experiment, sponsored by newspaper publishers, a one-page summary of the top stories was transmitted to the faxes via radio attachments. In the following years, the number of fax households grew to several thousand. But the system was slow and costly. In 1946, at the dawn of television, the fax-delivery newspaper was abandoned.

Half a century later, an idea that was ahead of its time is coming into its own. Fax machines, now available for as little as $250, have been installed all over the U. S. to speed business letters and documents or simply to beat out messenger and mail delivery. Now, they are being used to feed America's seeming-ly insatiable demand for instant information. They spew out news summaries, updates of stock portfolios, credit ratings,and weather reports. "The yuppie generation wants to be fast-fed," says Gerald L. Brodsky, president of the American Facsimile Assn., based in Philadelphia. That's not to say that any fax information service is a surefire hit. While demand is expected to rise sharply (chart), there have already been flops, including fax editions of the Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel, the Chicago Tribune, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Successful information services based on facsimile have been narrowly focused on consumers who are willing to pay extra for timeliness and customizing. Another market: captive audiences such as those on a cruise ship who can't easily get mail.

HAWAIIAN EYE. Ten daily newspapers in the U. S. are offering or experimenting with weekday fax editions. All are trying to avoid the early mistake of sending general news to general audiences. The Hartford Courant aims at area business executives, while The New York Times sends its news summaries outside the mainland U. S. A six- to-eight-page Times Fax of the day's happenings comes out in five English-language editions: for Hawaii, Japan, the Caribbean, cruise ships, and international readers in general. Prices range from $200 per month for the Hawaiian edition to $350 a month for the Caribbean one. Other tightly focused ventures are USA Today's Overnight Sports Wire fax service and Facts Hawaii from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, a three-page Japanese-language summary of the daily newspaper.

Information faxes are popular among investors, particularly people withsmaller portfolios who can't affordan on-line data service. By dialing a number and entering a code, a subscriber can command a computer to fax, say, earnings estimates of a particular company at any time of day. One such service is offered by Atlanta's Fax Interactive Inc. in collaboration with the Atlanta Journal & Constitution. For a $12.50 monthly fee, the customer receives a daily one-page summary of his or her stock portfolio, including the updated valuation and market commentary. "It's an ideal service for the individual who does not have the time or patience to go through the paper and do all his additions and subtractions," says Fax Interactive President Joseph J. Kowalczyk.

Businesses are receiving financial data by fax, too. Standard & Poor's Corp., a unit of BUSINESS WEEK publisher McGraw-Hill Inc., now distributes its credit reports to subscribers via S&P Credit Wire By Fax. The service, which was launched in June, offers a ratings profile on any one of 3,000 companies and information from current Cred-itWatch lists. Dow Jones Information Services' Facts Delivered offers its clients, within minutes of their request, detailed reports on thousands of public companies.

RADIO REDUX. The last frontier for fax information remains the first: the home. One thought is to send the fax signal via radio rather than over phone lines -- the same method used in the 1930s. For widespread, ongoing distribution of information, "radio is substantially less expensive than transmitting over telephone lines," says Matt Edwards, president of Montauk Communications in Montauk, N. Y., whose company has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission for a broadcast, advertiser-supported news service. By hooking the fax machine to a radio receiver costing less than $100, customers could get frequent printed updates on news, stocks, sports, and weather maps.

With 17 million to 20 million fax machines in the world and with sales growing about 15% annually, the medium is becoming a natural for information dissemination. This time around, information by facsimile is more than a far-sighted experiment.

Sunita Wadekar Bhargava in New York

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