While it is fine (in fact it’s crucial) that your newspaper or magazine be available by subscription on the Kindle or by app on the iPad, that alone isn’t enough. There are some fifty e-readers using e-paper screen technology on the market worldwide, in addition to the iPad (which actually uses LCD technology rather than e-paper). Of these, the most popular by far are the Kindle, the Sony Reader, and the Barnes & Noble Nook. As Amazon has forcefully demonstrated during its pricing wars with book publishers, however, relying on a third-party device maker and content retailer can be limiting in important ways. Amazon takes around 65 percent of the revenues from e-book sales (at the end of June, Amazon began offering publishers the option of flipping the equation in their favor, but doing so means sacrificing a significant amount of control over the book’s pricing). Apple has been more generous to publishers, taking only a 30 percent commission on sales, and media companies hope that the launch of the iPad and other more publisher-friendly e-readers will force Amazon and other content and device “e-tailers” to strike more agreeable bargains.

But if publishers developed, or subcontracted the development of, their own content management system for mobile devices, and opened their own digital stores to sell that content, then in theory they could charge for subscriptions and effectively cut out the middleman. They could then use this paying, engaged audience—and the demographic information that comes with it—to attract advertisers. There are signs, nascent and tentative, that this is beginning to happen.

2 For the moment, a project called Next Issue Media is the boldest and most comprehensive of these efforts. Founded in December 2009, it is a partnership of five lions—Condé Nast, News Corporation, Hearst, Meredith, and Time Inc.—that have banded together like some Voltron of mass media, out to save the news business. The idea is to set up a one-stop clearinghouse for digital newspaper and magazine content. Publishers and consumers could use it to distribute and purchase content for a variety of smart phones, e-readers, tablets, netbooks, desktops, and laptops (the emphasis, though, is on hand-held mobile devices). The group has no plans to develop its own e-reader, but it does intend to “partner with device manufacturers and software developers to create technical and universal standards for our new, comprehensive e-reading initiative.”

The Next Issue folks are cagey about the details of their operation, preferring to wait until they have an actual product to show off. But John Squires, who left his job as an executive vice president at Time Inc. to captain Next Issue Media, tells me that one of the first priorities is to develop a simple, open-platform system that makes it easy for publishers to distribute and format their editorial content for a variety of different screens—“one that renders the distinctive look and feel of your publications across multiple devices, operating systems and screen sizes,” as the group’s Web site puts it. “It is critical for publishers to continue to own and manage customer relationships directly,” Squires says.

This back end will facilitate a kind of online store—an iTunes for news, if you will—where people can subscribe to a variety of publications for as many devices as they like. Squires calls this a “fairly complicated technical challenge.” Indeed, the new media editor at NRC Handelsblad, a Dutch newspaper that has been publishing digital editions of its product on several e-readers since 2008, says that setting up an efficient publishing platform is a challenge, but the first, and perhaps most important, step toward capturing readers. He stressed, however, that trial and error is the only way forward, and that publishers should not wait “for the perfect ecosystem” to begin experimenting with new digital products. (Europe, in general, is further down this road than we are in the U.S., but more on that later.)

The next step is to develop a similarly simple procedure for advertisers to launch new campaigns with one or multiple publishers on one or a range of devices. Squires says Next Issue Media will work with the advertising industry to develop new metrics and analytical tools that will be different from those used to evaluate print and Web advertising—again, details are sparse, but the idea is to measure “engagement” with ads rather than “clicks.” This likely means spending more time analyzing how long readers linger on a page, especially one with a large ad (although, to some extent, this is done now). The scheme will allow each publisher to control the sales and pricing of its advertising on the platform.

This all will take time, of course, but Squires says there will likely be some significant announcements from Next Issue by late summer or early fall.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.