By T.R. REID and BRIT HUME

It's an old cliche, but generally true: There's no such thing as a free lunch. And now this sad rule applies to the Internet.

For a couple of years now, those of us who regularly prowl the Net have had access to a vast treasury of news and information sources for free. You can read the entire text of today's New York Times or Washington Post, or any of hundreds of local newspapers on the Net. You can read Time magazine and Business Week, or London's Financial Times, or Tokyo's Yomiuri Shimbun (in Japanese or English).

When we say "free"' in this context, we mean that there's no payment to the publication for reading these great publications. Some people have to pay a monthly fee for Internet access, but many surf the Net for free through a school or office connection. In any case, once you're connected, almost all those famous publications are available for no extra charge.

Frankly, most of the publishers putting their content up on the World Wide Web would prefer not to give it away. But so far, they've had no choice.

Many magazines and newspapers feel a need to maintain a presence on the Internet. One reason is competitive pressure; if the Pleasantville Daily Blurb starts a Web site, then the Pleasantville Daily Bugle feels a need to match it. A stronger rationale, perhaps, is the awareness that more and more customers are computer users, and these people are growing accustomed to getting news, gossip, sports scores and financial data from the Web. Publications need to prepare themselves for the day when people decide that the traditional print version is a waste of time.

In addition, print publications are threatened by the crush of new publications that exist only on the Net. If "Webzines'" or "Digiletters" drain away subscribers and advertisers, it could be a disaster for publishers.

Newspaper companies in particular are worried about competition in classified ads from operations like America Online's "Digital City" sites, which carry news about particular cities. If readers get used to searching a local Web site, rather than the local paper, for classified ads, that could kill the Golden Goose of the newspaper business.

Initially, newspapers and magazines insisted they were going to charge Internet users for access to their sites. But this idea was a flop, for a simple reason: Nobody was willing to pay. When USA Today tried and utterly failed to get readers to pay, that scared the rest of the industry out of imposing fees.

For a while, publications hoped to make money on the Net through advertising. This hasn't panned out, either. Readers hate those intrusive ads flashing on and off around the screen. Advertisers know that, so they aren't buying online space in great numbers.

Which brings us back to subscription fees. To date, only a few specialized publications have managed to get away with charging for their online editions. Playboy and Penthouse have found paying customers, as have various sports information sites that cater to gamblers.

Unfortunately, though, the days of free electronic newspapers and magazines may be coming to an end. More and more publications are demanding a subscription fee. After a year of free service, the online Wall Street Journal began charging a fee ($49 per year, or $29 for people who subscribe to its print newspaper), and reports that it has 150,000 paying subscribers. Consumer Reports, The Economist and Business Week are also charging for online information now.

Many publications are switching to a "teaser" format; they give you the table of contents and one or two articles for free, and hope you'll agree to pay to read the rest of the issue.

Even more unsettling, some of those new Webzines that is, magazines that exist only on the Net are starting to charge for access. The forerunner here is Microsoft's Webzine, Slate, which has been free for two years. This month it will impose a $20 yearly subscription charge. If Slate gets away with this that is, if it can maintain acceptable readership levels many other Internet-only publications will probably follow.

Although it seems to infuriate many readers when we compliment any Microsoft product, we have to admit that Slate is a terrific magazine: timely, provocative, well-written. We're going to cough up the $20 even though we know it means the end of the Internet free lunch.

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at trreid@ix.netcom.com, or Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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