Publishers may soon find themselves delivering content on yet another media platform. E-paper, a display technology that you can roll up and put in your pocket, is the next generation in reading devices. Books are already being read on digital display devices like Sony’s Reader, and it’s only a matter of time before newspapers and magazines will be delivered to digital readers on e-paper devices. But will e-paper replace print? Not likely, says Ken Bronfin, president of Hearst Interactive Media and chairman of the board of E Ink, a company that is working to commercialize the e-paper display technology. Here, Bronfin discusses the likelihood of e-paper integrating into magazine publishing.

FOLIO: How is Hearst getting involved in developing e-paper for magazines?
Bronfin: Hearst Corporation has been long involved in the MIT Media Lab [a group of scientists within MIT who are planning new technologies that relate to media and other personal technologies]. The vision they had many years ago was to create display technology that looked, felt and read as easily and nicely as real paper does. E Ink is in the business of commercializing that display technology. It’s a stepping stone to that technology that is now on the market. The Sony Reader is the first generation of E Ink technology. It’s not yet flexible like paper but it’s well on its way. The premise here is that we’re creating a reader device that is highly optimized for reading any type of publication or document. We’re trying to get our content out on as many platforms to reach our consumers, and this is one we want to be a part of when it comes out.

FOLIO: Why is e-paper an attractive solution for publishers?
Bronfin: We think its going to change the industries where we operate. First it could potentially dramatically affect the newspaper industry. It’s very expensive for newspaper companies to print and deliver newspapers, and even when you deliver the paper it’s not delivered in real time. The idea is that consumers may want something to carry around where they can be updated on a regular basis, so news comes in and it comes right onto your reader. This newspaper transforms itself as the day goes on.

FOLIO: How will e-paper affect the magazine industry directly?
Bronfin: In the b-to-b media business it could potentially impact some of but not all of our magazines in the short term. It’s more likely to affect a magazine like Popular Mechanics or Smart Money versus Harper’s Bazaar. I’m not saying people will no longer enjoy the touch and smell and feel of a beautifully printed magazine, but there are other magazines that have more perishable content that are probably more likely to connect with their audiences via a device like this.

FOLIO: How will this affect publishing operations?
Bronfin: The Web operations that publishers already have in place will support this. Because our magazine sites syndicate content to a variety of other sources, most of our resources are already in a position to feed stories out. I don’t think it will be a great challenge to output to these devices. Most properties are in very good shape right now or will be shortly.

FOLIO: When do you expect these devices to become a magazine industry norm?
Bronfin: The potential for it to begin to affect the magazine world is real but I can’t predict the timing. Sony has created a device for book reading that has become fairly popular. Newspapers are a year or two off, they need to have bigger displays and better delivery and they need to be updated all the time. So if I’m carrying around a device like this that has my books and newspapers on it I probably wouldn’t mind having at least some of my magazines delivered to it as well.

FOLIO: What will this device look like?
Bronfin: I don’t know what size will be optimum for consumers. Some consumers might want broadsheet. More likely for a magazine or newspaper it will be closer to 8.5" x 11" or maybe a little smaller.

FOLIO: How does this reflect your vision of interactive media?
Bronfin: It will have some interactivity. The consumer will be able to customize the news and articles they have an interest in. Certain features to be built into it will be the ability to clip an article and send it off to someone. It could ultimately involve user-generated content. But it’s a device optimized for reading. It’s not a laptop or a Blackberry.

FOLIO: Why is this a good option for publishers?
Bronfin: It’s for certain that it’s more effective for publishers. If you can deliver a product or service without having the cost of printing and distribution, the economics dramatically change, but you have to deliver advertising as well.

FOLIO: And for consumers?
Bronfin: It’s certainly more environmentally friendly. As a consumer I could potentially store the last 50 years of Popular Mechanics on this device. Why do we love paper? Paper is easy to read and it’s disposable. This device is easy to read. It’s not disposable but it’s not terribly expensive either. Sony’s device sells for $349. It’s not a $2,000 laptop. The potential for a publisher to subsidize the device also exists. The publisher can say: ムSign up for two years and we’ll give you the device and you can receive the publication on the device as well as other things.’

FOLIO: Will there be advertising?
Bronfin: That’s the vision. The device can support display advertising. If you’re in Bloomingdale’s and you’re trying to run brand advertising that doesn’t work on the Web, it could work on a device like this if it’s 8.5" x 11" in size. It’s high impact and better than the Web in some cases. Our advertisers who are aware of what we’re doing are very interested.

FOLIO: Do you think it will replace print?
Bronfin: I don’t think it will replace print anytime in my lifetime but print might taper off as result of this. Maybe print will become the luxury edition and will be sold for a higher price.

FOLIO: How will it differ from the Web?
Bronfin: It may or may not be dramatically different. All of these platforms, whether print or the Web or these reading devices, they will all coexist. I can see people using all three together. Magazines on the living room table, your reader for when you’re traveling, and your PC when you’re at work. I don’t think one necessarily detracts from another.

The Vendors
E-paper technologies will soon be hitting the mass market, and these are the companies that are behind it, according to Precision Media Group president Bob Sacks:

The major players:

  • E Ink
  • BASF
  • Bridgestone Corp.
  • Dainippon Printing
  • Eastman Kodak
  • EV Group
  • Fujitsu
  • Fuji Xerox
  • Hewlett-Packard
  • LG Philips LCD
  • Plastic Logic
  • Polymer Vision

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