Newspapers of Tomorrow

The headline for today's story from Reuters on the progress being made to actually publish newspapers via flexible digital readers says it all: "E-newspapers just around the corner. Really". Using flexible electronics for practical, large-scale applications such as this has been "just around the corner" for decades. Ten years ago, they were just a few years away. When we wrote about them last year, they were "at last taking their first tentative steps into a few niche markets," as one of our authors stated. Now, it looks like they may be ready to take bigger steps—and the corner may be looming.

Some big-name publishers have announced plans to give e-newspapers a tryout. According to Reuters, Hearst Corp. in the U.S., Pearson Plc.'s Les Echos in Paris, and Belgian financial paper De Tijd will begin experimenting with the technology later this year. It seems that new offerings from Sony, the Portable Reader System, and Philips, the iRex E-reader, are finally starting to gain traction in the minds of traditionally conservative newspaper executives.

"This could be a real substitution for printed paper," an executive at a global newspaper association based in Germany told Reuters. It's a cautious note of optimism, but with the runaway success of digital handhelds such as the iPod, it might just be time to make sincere understatements about the potential of e-readers again.

Increasingly, newspapers are turning to the Web to find the revenue that keeps them in business. Advertising is up in the world of papers, but the bulk of the profit is coming from online ads. And digital readers could slash the overhead of many publications, which spend great amounts of money on newsprint, the paper papers are printed on, and the physical delivery of the weighty issues.

The Sony and Philips devices employ technology developed by E Ink, which receives funding from publishers Hearst and McClatchy Co. and electronics makers Intel Corp., Motorola, and Philips. The current generation of readers, due in late summer, use glass transistor boards, or back planes; but next-generation devices will employ flexible plastic sheets (or e-paper) from firms such as U.K.-based Plastic Logic Ltd.

With manufacturing costs expected to drop as production ramps up on the new gadgets, the notion of giving away e-readers as part of a subscription package is being discussed by publishers, Reuters reports.

So, we've heard it before, but now there might be reason to believe some of the hype about the newspaper of the future—as long as we cast a wary eye on news that's "just around the corner."

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