1 Talk to people who are into mobile reading devices like the Kindle and the iPad, and a scene from the movie Minority Report tends to come up. Tom Cruise, who is on the run from the law, is on a train. Next to him, a man reads USA Today on what looks and acts like broadsheet paper but is clearly digital film of some sort, with animated graphics and flashing news updates. Suddenly, a photo of Cruise pops up on the man’s (and everyone else’s) gadget, along with an announcement that he is wanted for murder.
It’s a bummer for Cruise, but that screen makes techies swoon: paper-thin, it has the slight gloss of a laminate but otherwise looks like typical newsprint, though it is clearly connected to some ultrafast wireless network and can instantly access the limitless information of the future Internet. You get the impression that, after Cruise fled the train, the man folded up that screen, shoved it into his briefcase, and took it out later to find USA Today (or the publication of his choice) waiting with a fresh batch of articles. Alas, no such product actually exists . . . yet. But it’s closer than you may think. Steven Spielberg and crew developed the idea based on input from E-Ink, a manufacturer of so-called electronic paper based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which The Boston Globe last year called the “hottest technology company” in the Boston area.
Hollywood has long been something of a bellwether for advanced technologies, and that is certainly the case here. In April, I called Sri Peruvemba, E-Ink’s marketing director. The company was involved in one of the most conspicuous recent examples of journalism’s pursuit of this digital Holy Grail: an electronic-paper cover that Esquire magazine used on its seventy-fifth anniversary issue in September 2008. Peruvemba directed me to a YouTube video of critics from Gizmodo, Gawker Media’s popular gadget site, trying to “hack” it. “Wait until they get the knives,” Peruvemba chirped, after I noted the cover’s impressive resistance to the hackers’ attempts to tear it apart by hand and light it on fire.
Rugged, shatterproof screens will be a key feature of future e-readers, but overall, Gizmodo was lukewarm about Esquire’s experiment: “This is really slick in some ways—as far as attention goes—but the bigger thing it shows is the terrible lack of understanding that most magazine editors have in dealing with the digital future of their publications.” That’s probably true. The New York Times reported that Esquire made a six-figure investment to develop the battery alone—hardly a sustainable model for the industry, even if Ford did buy an ad, executed on e-paper, on the inside cover.
But it’s not just the battery; it’s the gimmicky, one-off approach. Media outlets are still having a tough time seeing beyond their own dwindling print runs, and it was only three years ago that electronic paper helped incite what has been called the “e-reading revolution.” It’s not much of a revolution yet, but what is increasingly apparent is that mobile devices have the potential to offer the journalism business that rare and beautiful thing: a second chance—another shot at monetizing digital content and ensuring future profitability that was missed during the advent of Web 1.0.
I use the word “potential” because there are many ifs and unknowns undergirding this notion of a second chance. But I use it also because so much of the hype about how e-readers could save journalism that has poured forth since the release of the iPad in April (actually, such articles have been appearing since the launch of the Kindle in 2007), ignores—or fails to grasp—what’s really going on. Proponents of the revolution believe that a richly designed and robust mobile reader will be a boon to digital subscriptions, and more importantly to advertising, in a way, and at a rate, that the Web has not. What this theory hinges on, though—and what the hype has tended to overlook—is the need for the media companies that create news and other editorial content to reclaim control over the channels of delivery for that content—the kind of control they had when the printing press was still at the center of our information universe.