Circulation Boost? Newspapers Explore Delivery Via Electronic Reader

By Skowronski, Will | American Journalism Review, June-July 2009 | Go to article overview

Circulation Boost? Newspapers Explore Delivery Via Electronic Reader


Skowronski, Will, American Journalism Review


With the recent technological improvements to and growing popularity of devices like Amazon's Kindle, some newspapers are turning to easy-to-carry electronic readers as a way to attract and keep subscribers while cutting back on print and delivery costs.

The New York Times, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post, already available via the Kindle, will pilot editions on a newer version of the device this summer. The papers will offer them at a reduced cost to readers out of home-delivery range who agree to long-term subscriptions.

The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News are making digital publishing an even bigger part of their immediate plans: They are replacing four days of newspaper home delivery with an electronic edition--in hopes of staving off more newsroom cuts or a shutdown of the papers.

"It's apparent that most of the major newspapers are taking e-readers seriously as a potential new vehicle or platform for their content," says Roger Fidler, program director for digital publishing at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. "It's really difficult to digitally replicate what ink on paper does. ... We're finally getting to a point where that's going to happen."

The growing popularity of the Kindle and Sony Reader, whose current incarnations offer six-inch displays that use "electronic paper" technology, is driving newspapers to take notice, Fidler says. Their screens appear like paper and are readable even in bright sunlight. The devices use battery energy only when the user turns the page, so, unlike your iPod, they can go for days without needing to be recharged.

This year, the firm Plastic Logic will begin testing wireless devices with 8.5-by-11-inch displays that can be used to read Microsoft Word documents or PDFs. Fortune magazine reported in February that Hearst is developing its own wireless, large-display e-reader that would allow publishers to include display advertising alongside their content.

Hearst declined to comment, except to say the company "is keenly interested in e-reading and expects that new devices and media platforms will be a big part of its future," Hearst spokesman Paul J. Lutheringer wrote in an e-mail.

In September, iRex Technologies became the first company to come out with a 10-inch electronic reader. It allows subscribers to access more than 800 newspapers, but it requires an Internet connection and a plug, unlike the Kindle, which receives information wirelessly.

Fidler thinks e-readers will really take off as a way to read newspapers once new devices that have at least 10-inch displays and more user-friendly features are readily available. New-generation devices will have plastic screens that should prove less fragile than the glass displays found on the current versions of the Kindle and Sony Reader.

"I think there's still value in the concept of a package that's conveniently delivered to you," Fidler says. "The Kindle has demonstrated that people are willing to pay a subscription fee to have it automatically downloaded to the device."

Rich Gordon, director of Digital Innovation at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, says some underestimate the appeal of the printed paper and that millions still prefer it to the alternative. "As these screens get thinner, more portable, more flexible, more spillable and less fragile, they will get closer and closer to having the functionality of paper, and as they do it will become closer and closer to being a substitute for paper," he says. "In the meantime, you know, I guess I'm having a little trouble imagining what set of people wants to have another laptop to carry around." But once e-readers can come closer to mimicking the ink-on-paper experience, Gordon believes, newspapers should consider offering an e-reader to each print subscriber in order to save printing and distribution costs. …

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