Delivered on electronic paper, the Seattle P-I won't be your father's Web site

The flat, flexible display screen you can roll up and put in your pocket or purse might finally be here. Hearst Corp., owner of the Post-Intelligencer and an investor in the technology, said it plans to test it, possibly in Seattle.
Crosscut archive image.

Flexible electronic paper. (LG.Philips)

The flat, flexible display screen you can roll up and put in your pocket or purse might finally be here. Hearst Corp., owner of the Post-Intelligencer and an investor in the technology, said it plans to test it, possibly in Seattle.

Editor's note: The P-I has posted its own story about this – denying it has any plans whatsoever to test electronic paper in Seattle. Crosscut writer Bill Richards responds to Hearst Corp.'s denial in comments below this story and in comments on the P-I Web site. Sometime in the next two years, if Hearst Corp.'s plans work out, a handful of Seattle Post-Intelligencer readers will begin getting their morning news not from the paper on the front stoop or by dropping change in a corner newsbox – or even on their laptop – but from a new electronic newspaper that's displayed on a screen as light and flexible as paper. The screen will be about the size of a small tabloid newspaper, and it will be in color. The electronic P-I will carry real-time news, same as the Internet, not yesterday's news like traditional papers. Readers will turn the e-paper's pages by touching the flexible screen. And when those readers head off to work, they will roll up the electronic P-I and stuff it in their pocket, purse, or briefcase. "If you could tell someone, 'We'll deliver your news in a customized way, so that when you wake up at 6 a.m., you'll have 6 a.m. news on the front page, every day,' we think consumers will say, 'Hey, that's pretty darn good,'" said Ken Bronfin, who heads Hearst's interactive division. With the ink barely dry on a new joint operating agreement (JOA) between Hearst and the Seattle Times Co., which under the agreement prints and distributes both papers, Hearst is planning to field test a version of the long-promised e-paper here in Seattle. Some industry experts think the e-paper will upend the entire newspaper industry. It will most certainly rattle Seattle's media market. Hearst officials say they hope to begin testing their device with the P-I here and at some other sites where the company has media operations within two years. While the display technology originally was developed to deliver print news, Hearst officials told Crosscut it could also become a flexible, low-cost platform for delivering video or standard Web content. Hearst owns a dozen newspapers, including the P-I, but also 29 television stations, 19 magazines, and numerous Web sites. "No one has really done what we are planning to do with this," said Bronfin. "This is all clearly new. No consumers have had contact with this." Tech and media companies have been predicting for years that they are on the verge of unveiling some form of a flexible e-paper that is practical for consumers. But the technology has been slow to evolve and expensive to develop. Newspapers in Belgium and Germany, and U.S. media companies like The New York Times Co., are working on their own versions of an e-paper. But Hearst's device would be the first to offer a tabloid-sized newspaper on a large, flexible, color screen. Hearst is not generally known for newspaper innovation, and Bronfin's interactive division has attracted little notice. It operates as both a venture capital and incubator arm for the company's tech investments. Hearst bought a piece of E Ink, a Cambridge, Mass.-based company that was spun off from MIT's Media Lab about 10 years ago. E Ink's other owners include Intel, Motorola, and McClatchy Co., the minority owner of The Seattle Times and owner of the Tacoma News Tribune, Tri-City Herald, The Olympian, Bellingham Herald, and Idaho Statesman in Boise. In addition to heading Hearst Interactive, Bronfin currently chairs E Ink's board. Seattle, he said, "is a great market for trying this out." The city has a large computer-literate population, a built-in test bed for Hearst in the P-I, and competition from The Seattle Times, which would provide a daily comparison for reader acceptance of an electronic P-I. The e-paper screen uses ordinary reflected light, like regular printed paper, instead of being backlit like a laptop screen. It requires so little power that it can operate for a month or more on flashlight batteries before needing a recharge. Sony's digital Reader, which it introduced last year and claims to be able to display up to 25 300-page books, already uses the E Ink technology on a hardback platform. Hearst's flexible electronic newspaper would have a similar capacity, Bronfin said. James McQuivey, television and media analyst for Forrester Research, says the e-paper could be for news readers what the iPod is for music fans. Its extended power life, he says, is "probably the single largest display innovation of this decade." Hearst, McQuivey said, is furthest along in this area of display technology. But if Hearst tries to give the e-paper full wireless capability – that is, updates the news second by second instead of downloading a page and storing it as an iPod stores downloaded music – the device's power reserve would be cut by as much as 80 percent, McQuivey said. According to E Ink's Web site, its electronic ink contains millions of microcapsules, each the diameter of a human hair. Each microcapsule contains either positively charged white particles or negatively charged black particles, suspended in a clear fluid. Bronfin calls the chemical mix the device's "secret sauce." A tiny electric charge draws one microcapsule to the surface of the screen and pushes the oppositely charged capsule to the bottom, creating white or black dots that form a printed page. Transistors embedded in the screen alter the charges, changing the page. The microcapsules can be displayed on a variety of flexible surfaces, including foil, plastic, cloth, or real paper. The whole thing is managed by an embedded microprocessor. While electronic ink has been around for years, newspapers have been slow to move toward the technology. Traditional newspaper formats are tough to adapt to computer screens, which are small and must be read head-on to avoid distortion. Laptops are heavier and bulkier than ink on paper, and advertisers examining prototypes complain that flexible, colored screens distort or wash out when they are rolled or folded. Last Sunday, May 13, however, LG.Philips LCD, a Korean display manufacturer, announced that it has solved many of those screen problems. Philips said it has developed a 14.1-inch color screen using E Ink's technology that is thinner than a postcard, has the clarity of a traditional newspaper, and can be bent with no distortion or fade. Philips' Web site shows a worker bending the screen with a color display the width of a small tabloid newspaper. The technology is one of several Hearst is considering for its e-paper experiment. Philips' announcement cited projections by Displaybank, a Korean research firm, that the worldwide market for flexible displays will be $12 billion by 2015. Hearst's plans to begin testing its e-paper here in the relatively near future could help explain why it elected last month to suddenly settle a four-year legal fight over the JOA with the Seattle Times Co. The two companies announced the settlement April 16, just before they were to enter binding arbitration. Under the settlement, the Times Co. dropped efforts to end the JOA and shut down the P-I for at least nine years. The Times also agreed to pay Hearst $24 million in exchange for Hearst's promise to drop a claim that the Times managed the JOA in favor of the Times and give up its right under the previous version of the JOA to 32 percent of the Seattle Times Co. profit until 2083 if it is forced to close the P-I. Both Hearst and Times Co. officials have offered only vague explanations for suddenly settling the dispute after years of costly and often bitter fighting. The agreement's wording, however, permits both companies to engage in "other business ventures and activities" outside the JOA without sharing their revenues. If Hearst is able to deliver an electronic P-I, the Times, which prints, delivers, and markets both papers under the JOA, would be left with an expensive overhead of trucks and printing presses while the P-I would be relatively unencumbered. "If in the long run Hearst can avoid buying presses, trucks, and gas to deliver the P-I [and can instead do so] in a fashion that is convenient and meets my wants and needs, I'd say it offers a pretty fascinating opportunity," said Randy Beam, an associate professor of communication at the University of Washington. The e-paper technology, said Beam, who specializes in newspaper management and operations, "dramatically cuts the cost of distributing the news." "It would certainly enhance competition between newspapers and television as distributors of real-time information about things like weather and sports scores," he said. However, Beam and other industry experts say e-papers won't necessarily fix dwindling newspaper readership, especially among younger readers. The problem with attracting younger readers, Beam said, lies with newspaper content, not the delivery system. "My big worry," he said, "is that paper companies would look at this technology as just an opportunity to do in the future what they do now, just more cheaply." Others, like San Francisco-based media investor and consultant Alan Mutter, say media companies like Hearst are focusing on the wrong target. A former newspaper editor who writes the blog Newsosaur, Mutter said readers are already overloaded with electronic gadgets, and newspapers should aim to provide better content on existing devices. "A specialized device like this that you need to carry along with your cell phone, laptop, pager, and Blackberry is just a non-starter," Mutter said. But Bronfin said a big attraction of Hearst's e-paper would be its cost – less than an annual subscription to the P-I, which is about $185. That cost could be less if the company chose to incorporate it into a long-term e-paper subscription, the way cell-phone companies do with their hardware. With a JOA settlement in place, Bronfin said, Hearst might seek Times participation in its e-paper test here. "If relations are good," he said, "the more the merrier." Bill Yearous, a Seattle Times Co. vice president for information technology, said the company has been closely following the development of E Ink's technology and has experimented with formatting The Seattle Times for Sony's Reader. Philips' flexible-screen technology, Yearous said, is "absolutely amazing." But he said Hearst has not yet approached the Times about testing a flexible-screen delivery system. "We would consider anything," Yearous said of an e-paper partnership with Hearst.


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