E-paper won’t necessarily save the newspaper industry

Jean Yves Chainon has produced a two-part blog post suggesting that e-paper may save the newspaper industry. Part 1. Part 2.

Well, the newspaper world could do with a glimpse of hope. And there it came: after all the signals of steady decline, at least in the industrialised world, digital paper finally offers a perspective for innovation and growth of the beleaguered sector. The digital paper technology combines the best of two worlds: the look and feel of the traditional paper and the versatility of the online editions (see ‘E-Readers, Background’). The promise it offers is mind boggling: a newspaper era without newsprint, rotation presses and complicated distribution lines: all serious cost factors. The practice however is less convincing. The enabling e-ink technology is around for several years, but its application is still scarce and purely experimental. That is, until now.

While Chainon, in part 2, acknowledges that the best use of the new technology isn’t necessarily a repurpose of current print approaches, and while I’ve previously been optimistic about the arrival of e-paper, I’m going to now play the part of the skeptic.

One of the first rules of innovation is to pay attention to the job people are trying to get done. The infamous Cue-Cat is a classic example of technology trying to solve a problem that doesn’t seem to exist. While advertisers and publishers might have a problem with driving more consumers directly to advertisers’ web sites, consumers didn’t perceive the cue-cat as a solution. Heck, they weren’t even convinced there was a problem.

So, is e-paper more about solving a problem for publishers than a problem for readers? What “job to be done” will e-paper help consumers solve?

Sure, there are benefits for consumers — fewer trees killed, less pollution, no papers piling up or cluttering the house, an end to inky fingers, but none of those issues are necessarily the cause of circulation decline.

So what is the benefit to readers?

And why would readers choose e-paper over a good mobile device? Mobile content delivery and display gets better and more ubiquitous every year. I love mobile video now. I read a lot less when traveling than I used to, thanks to my video iPod. I’m sure others will like mobile video a lot, too. Can e-paper really find a market in a world increasingly saturated by mobile content?

And what about interactivity? Increasingly, users want to be part of the conversation. Will e-paper allow comments on stories? Easy access to blogs? Links to supplemental information? All of those things and more are now essential to the digital experience. How many consumers will chose a seemingly more static (unless I’m wrong about this) experience of e-paper over a computer or mobile browser?

Finally, what about the advertising? Consumers have repeatedly rejected disruptive advertising on the web and mobile. Will the same hold true with e-paper? Without a sustainable advertising model e-paper will do no better for newspapers than the web has done so far (and let me emphasize so far, because I believe online advertising models will improve and soon).

Presumably, e-paper will offer a more customizable experience for users, which means, potentially, advertising could be customized out or marginalized. Without that user control, e-paper might face a tougher adoption rate.

I’ve said before that publishers might drop print editions when the day comes where they could deliver the same product without the cost of printing and delivery, but I also wonder if that will work.

If consumers buy their own e-paper devices, then publishers are still faced with a pull rather than push delivery model, which means paid subscription isn’t likely to work.

If publishers supply the devices (either for free, or for fee), consumers are likely to reject anything that allows them access to only one publication. They won’t want to carry multiple devices. That puts publishers back in the pull business rather than push, because consumers will still own all the power for which publications, stories and ads they see.

Also, the trend in consumer devices is toward small, mobile and multitasking — web, video, e-mail, SMS, calendar, phone, etc. all in one device.  Where will e-paper fit in the mix?

I applaud publishers for experimenting with these devices, but I think the best chance for success to is think of the reader/user/consumer first — what do they want, what problem can you solve for them, what job do they need to get done, and then design a content and revenue model that helps consumers first and foremost. If publishers put their own needs, wants and desires first, e-paper will do no better than the Cue-Cat.

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5 thoughts on “E-paper won’t necessarily save the newspaper industry

  1. Two predictions:

    1. Branded, proprietary readers from a single paper (or company, eh?) will fail.

    2. E-paper will disrupt the newspaper business by giving readers a pleasant lightweight device to consume the Web on and fold under their arm. Eventually, the readers will be nearly disposable.

  2. I wonder if digital printing will ever get cheap and easy enough to make it possible for the newspaper to have a “press” in subscribers homes.

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