There are signs—beyond Next Issue, Skiff, and Plastic Logic—that this may be changing. MediaNews Group, which owns fifty-four small- to large-sized papers across the country (plus over 200 niche magazines), is, like Next Issue Media, trying to create the back-end infrastructure so that its properties can distribute content across the range of digital platforms (it also has deals with both Skiff and Que). And three years ago, the Reynolds Institute at the University of Missouri launched the Digital Publishing Alliance, comprised of more than thirty news outlets, technology companies, and media organizations, which is researching the mobile market and developing best practices and standards for e-readers and other mobile devices. (For an interview with DPA’s Roger Fidler, go to www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/fidler_q_and_a.php.)

But given the state of the economy and the general beaten-down mood in the American news business, it would be naïve to suggest that a full-blown e-reader revolution is at hand. Some four months before an Audit Bureau of Circulations survey*—which found a high level of interest in e-reader editions among media executives—for instance, in March 2009, the Digital Advisory Committee of the Newspaper Association of America—a body that includes senior digital media executives from member outlets—held a first-of-its-kind meeting with e-reader manufacturers in order to acquaint participants with some of the emerging products.

While the group didn’t necessarily see the devices as a game-changing technology, according to Randy Bennett, the NAA’s head of business development, many intuitively recognized the opportunity to rebuild some portion of their former revenue streams. A few months later, Derek Robinson, Bennett’s counterpart at the Cox Media Group, which owns forty-three newspapers, built a financial model to measure the potential economic effects of moving a thousand subscribers from print to electronic delivery. The answer? It would take a newspaper 4.1 years to break even on its investment in the migration.

That doesn’t sound so bad, perhaps, but the model was full of mostly dummy data. For instance, while it used ad revenue of $700 per print subscriber, based on current data from the Newspaper Association of America, it assumed that figure would decrease by only 20 percent on e-readers. That’s a dubious estimate, however. Other NAA data, not used in the model, puts current online ad revenue at $46 per unique monthly visitor—a decrease of 95 percent compared to print.

Still, the point was for publishers to plug in their own proprietary data to determine the feasibility of a print-to-digital migration given their newsrooms’ particular circumstances. Most media executives accept the value of holding on to a print subscriber, however, and all of those interviewed for this article said that while they want to encourage as many e-readers as possible, it would be unwise to hasten the switch to mobile reading.

5 At the end of May, I attended the Society for Information Display’s annual conference in Seattle, where companies from around the world had gathered to show off their latest screens, using a variety of technologies. Device manufacturers sold roughly 1 million readers using e-paper displays in 2008 and 5 million last year, according to DisplaySearch, a market research firm. That is expected to grow to 14.5 million this year. By 2018, DisplaySearch predicts that more than 90 million units will be sold around the globe, including 20 million with ten-inch or larger screens that the company has begun referring to as “e-newspapers” and “e-magazines.” Together, the Kindle and Sony Reader control more than 50 percent of the market, but everyone agrees that there is plenty of room for “disruptive” technology innovation to catapult a newcomer to stardom.

The iPad, which sold a million units in its first month (the Kindle sold half a million during its first year), has brought more attention to e-readers and mobile devices in general. Since the iPad’s emergence, there has been much debate about whether or not it will become the so-called “Kindle Killer.” It is fairly safe to say, given their different qualities and ways that consumers will use e-readers—for instance, reading (Kindle) versus entertainment (iPad)—that this won’t be the case.

But what became clear to me while reporting this piece, and was really driven home at the Seattle gathering, is that the debate over which technology, or device, is superior is mostly beside the point. The rate of evolution is moving so quickly that in ten years e-readers will have become like televisions and cell phones, meaning there will be hundreds of affordable varieties that basically do the same things. As Cox’s Derek Robinson reported in March, in an update to his survey that he provided to the NAA, “E-readers may just be the tip of the iceberg. . . . We as an industry have begun to look beyond e-readers and are now considering the entire ecosystem of ‘emerging platforms.’ ”

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