All of the companies in Next Issue Media were relatively farsighted, technology-wise, even before they joined forces, and perhaps none more so than Hearst, which helped launch E-Ink back in 1997. Hearst continues to play a trailblazing role, having invested in a company two years ago called FirstPaper. We didn’t hear much about the company until late last year when, rebranded as Skiff, LLC, it launched a slick Web site [which has been effectively taken down since this issue went to press] that outlined its goals. Like Next Issue Media, Skiff wants to create a publishing and advertising infrastructure on the back end with an online store at the front, but the two projects are independent of each other. Unlike Next Issue, Skiff is also testing the hardware waters, having developed a reader with an eleven-and-a-half-inch e-paper touch screen. It’s a flexible display, which makes it shatterproof, rugged, and light, but it is set in a rigid frame (which houses supporting electronics). It looks sort of like a hybrid of the Kindle and the iPad, but will probably lean heavily toward the former in terms of functionality. That is, if Skiff releases it at all.
In June, as this issue was about to close, News Corporation bought Skiff from Hearst—but it only bought the publishing platform, leaving the future of the reader, which was a hot item at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, uncertain. Indeed, before the deal was announced, several people I interviewed were under the impression that Skiff was rethinking its planned launch of the reader in order to focus on the publishing, subscription, and advertising platform—like Next Issue Media. Both Hearst, which still owns the reader, and Skiff declined to comment.
While Skiff’s reader awaits its fate, its main rival, a device called Que made by a company called Plastic Logic, is moving ahead and targeting the business community with the pitch that it offers “news that looks like news.” It is also an e-paper, tablet-style device with a large, flexible touch screen, and the Que store has signed up some two dozen newspapers and magazines. Although Plastic Logic doesn’t have a Hearst bankrolling it, USA Today and the Financial Times, as well as the Detroit Media Partnership, which manages the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News, have worked closely with the company throughout the development process.
Patricia Kelly, the vice president in charge of digital solutions at the Detroit Media Partnership, says this “is a better approach than waiting for somebody to come out with something and asking, ‘How can we get on there?’ ” For instance, a newspaper would have a wish list for the page design on a reader that would be very different from what the Kindle offers, because the Kindle is built for books, and that is what most people use it for.
Building the devices and the infrastructure is a crucial first step on the road to a second chance. But once the storefronts are built, will the readers come? More importantly, will they pay?
3 It is important to understand that e-readers have thus far done nothing to fundamentally improve the journalism industry’s bottom line. Many media executives interviewed for this article described themselves as “bullish” about the long-term potential of mobile devices. They see an opportunity, but don’t know how big it is, and most are skeptical that subscription and advertising revenues will ever return to pre-Internet levels. Moreover, a number of authorities on the subject, such as Sarah Rotman Epps, who studies e-readers and the news media for Forrester Research, stress that many big media companies have “legacy problems”—debt, overhead, real estate, inflexible labor structures, etc.—that technology will never overcome. Within that context, a lot is possible, but a number of variables will determine whether the second chance is as profound a moment as some think.