Andrew Walmsley
Andrew Walmsley

Andrew Walmsley on Digital: fate of newspapers may rest with e-readers

Far from sealing the fate of the newspaper industry, a new generation of e-readers may be its saviour

At 912 pages, Roberto Bolaño's novel 2666 is two inches thick. At 500g, it represented more than 8% of my hand-luggage allowance, and 35% of the weight I carried to the beach. I realise that so much focus on form rather than content makes me a Philistine but, while I aspire to cultural refinement, I do like to travel light.

If the eBook version had been available, I might have read it on my Sony Reader. Along with Amazon's Kindle, it's one of a dozen devices that have launched into the eBook market in the past four years. These use e-paper (wouldn't you have guessed it), which differs from conventional LCD displays in several important ways.

The screen uses power only when the image is refreshed - when you turn a page. It has no backlight and, like paper, relies on reflected ambient light. This means e-paper displays can be read in daylight without the eyestrain associated with conventional laptop screens and the battery can last for days or even weeks of constant use.

One of these devices can hold hundreds of books, but weighs less than 300g, potentially solving my hand-luggage challenge in one leap. The manufacturers of these gizmos look hungrily at the success of the iPod/iTunes combo, hoping to translate it to the books market.

Plastic Logic is a company that was spun out of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. It turned its expertise in plastic electronics to the business of making thin, flexible displays that have none of the fragility associated with glass laptop screens.

The e-reader, set to launch at the beginning of next year, is already making waves around the publishing and media worlds. At just a quarter of an inch thick, but with a huge letter-sized screen (the US standard paper size, slightly smaller than A4), the reader comes equipped with wifi, 3G, Bluetooth and USB, making it easy to download content.

Plastic Logic is promoting it as an e-printer for business people; instead of printing reams of paper to take to meetings, you load them on the reader, annotating them using the touch-screen interface. However, the real moneyspinner could be its ability to display newspapers and magazines, delivering an up-to-date version to your screen.

The irony should not be lost on the newspaper industry that, after years of persuading people that paedophiles lurk around every corner, it can no longer get children to deliver its papers to readers' homes. That distribution challenge contributes to a steady decline in sales over the past 20 years - particularly among younger audiences.

These audiences have higher levels of tech adoption, and some observers predict that Plastic Logic-style readers could be the final death knell for young newspaper readership. However, this derives from an over-literal view of what a newspaper is.

The web places newspaper sites in competition with pure-plays, TV companies and every other conceivable type of site. This explosion of choice has made it hard to charge for content or gain sustainable competitive advantage. The web lends itself to short attention spans, and short copy that can be read on a computer screen.

Readers are better suited to long copy. They are a less frenetic, less clickable, more measured environment, and newspapers' core product is consistent with this experience. It is also a plat-form that could prove more suited to a subscription model than the web. If this is true, it could signal newspapers' rebirth - a reinvention that could make print a growth medium once more, and hand luggage a realistic option.

Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level

30 seconds on the paper round

  • According to a survey carried out by Halifax, the proportion of working children with a paper round in the UK fell from 35% in 2004 to 19% in 2007.
  • Barney Flaherty, hired to deliver the New York Sun in 1833, is widely thought to have been the first paper-boy. However, US statesman Benjamin Franklin recalled carrying 'the papers thro' the streets to the customers' as a boy in the early 1700s.
  • Warren Buffett used money earned from his paper round to buy farmland at age 14. He is currently the world's second-richest man.
  • Earlier this year 15-year-old paperboy, Myles Bebbington, had his £8000 claim for unfair dismissal thrown out by an employment tribunal because he was considered to be 'temporary' staff rather than an employee.
  • Atari's Paperboy was a popular video game in the 80s. Players had to navigate the titular character along a street, delivering papers to the houses of subscribers and vandalising those of non-subscribers.