Updated at 12:25 p.m. on Saturday with notes about Hearst's plans to charge for some content online.
It looks as if the e-paper revolution is really about to start.
Hearst, one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, announced on Friday that it has developed an electronic reader for newspapers and magazines, the way Amazon.com's new Kindle does for books. The publisher is also planning to put at least some of its online content behind a pay wall, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.
The e-reader news, first reported by Fortune magazine, is really significant, as Hearst owns about 16 daily and 49 weekly newspapers, and has a strong influence on hundreds of magazines. Examples of those include the San Francisco Chronicle, Oprah Winfrey's O, and Cosmopolitan.
It's unclear if the device Hearst has been working on has anything to do with the eReader that Plastic Logic unveiled recently, but its principle seems the same. It's a handheld device used to read digital content, much like the Kindle. The main difference would be that Hearst's e-reader has a much larger size to accommodate the format of newspapers and magazines.
At the same time as it is developing the device, Hearst is hoping for success in charging for access to at least some of its online content. A pay model for online content, as opposed to an advertising-supported free-access model, is something few publishers have managed to pull off.
Of the leading New York-based papers alone, The New York Times and News Corp.'s The Wall Street Journal have adopted, and backtracked on, both models. Cablevision's Newsday on Thursday also announced that it is implementing a pay-for-access model.
"Exactly how much paid content to hold back from our free sites will be a judgment call made daily by our management, whose mission should be to run the best free Web sites in our markets without compromising our ability to get a fair price from consumers for the expensive, unique reporting and writing that we produce each day," Steven Swartz, the president of Hearst newspapers, wrote in a staff memo obtained by the Journal.
Certainly, during a time in which papers right and left are folding under economic pressures or otherwise struggling to stay in operation, finding ways to profitably embrace digital media has become imperative for major and minor publishers alike.
"Our cost base is significantly out of line with the revenue available in our business today," Hearst's Swartz concluded, as he noted other advertising initiatives, such as partnering on advertising with real-estate site Zillow and Yahoo, and raising prices for print subscriptions and mobile-phone access to its content. "It is equally inescapable that during good times, our industry developed business practices that were, at best, inefficient."
It's also speculated that Hearst's e-reader is going to be physically flexible and even foldable. The first version would come in black and white, with a later model coming in color and even with video playback capability.
Once implemented, this would change the way newspapers and magazines are published. Instead of getting a print copy, you can just download the newest issues on the e-reader, wirelessly. No printing or paper is involved. Besides the environmental factor, this would cut down about 50 percent of the cost to circulate a periodical.
It's also not clear when you can get the first issue of Cosmopolitan on this new e-reader, but considering the recent launch of the Kindle 2 and the upcoming e-reader from Plastic Logic, Hearst's e-reader will probably be launched in 12 to 18 months.