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.

The first and most significant variable is whether—and why—consumers will continue to pay for content on mobile devices. The fact that many people have already accepted the need to pay is, after all, the e-reader’s most elementary magic from a publisher’s standpoint. There are many theories about how the magic works. One of the most logical is that mobile devices have enabled what Epps calls “a return to curated computing.” Basically, the subscriptions on a Kindle or the apps on an iPad provide a more restricted reading experience than the Web, but in a way that enhances the experience. Unlike the chaos of links, summations, images, and ads on a Web page, mobile readers give you a simple, curated list of top stories, period. Think of surfing the Web as wandering through a museum warehouse, piled with every dusty knickknack it ever collected, and using mobile readers as visiting its galleries, where experts have lovingly gathered highlights. This restricted experience, the theory goes, adds value to the news product and makes people willing pay for it.

But there is also a transactional aspect to the magic—people need an easy way to tender their payments. Mobile devices enable publishers to collect money from consumers in a way that hasn’t existed on the Web since America Online’s heyday in the 1990s. In that era, people gave AOL their credit card numbers, and in return got both access and proprietary content like e-mail, games, and news. The content was, in essence, tied to access. When broadband arrived, content and access were disaggregated. We began paying an Internet service provider, like Time Warner Cable, for access, but it no longer came with e-mail, games, or news. That content could be found elsewhere, of course, and plenty of sites were giving it away for free. That is how the Web effectively tricked the journalism industry into believing that people won’t pay for a well-curated news experience, even if you make it effortless to do so. Mobile readers, some believe, are reconnecting access and content.

Squires suspects that one of the reasons Amazon was able to incite the e-reading “revolution,” such as it is, was that it already had thousands of its customers’ credit cards on file when it launched the Kindle, which made it easy for them to buy books. The same holds true for the iPad and iTunes App Store. Once again, one credit card buys access and all the content—including news—that a consumer desires. “One of the biggest issues about content providers getting paid was not that their content wasn’t valuable, it was that they didn’t have an effective way to bill the consumer,” Squires says. “It’s almost as simple as that.”

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