Hearst's E-Reader: The Last Stand of a Doomed Industry

Dear media companies: Please stop trying to innovate. You're lousy at it. Hearst's supposed "Kindle killer," an electronic reader for magazines, is just the latest in a series of debacles from the moribund print-media business.

Hearst's e-reader will be larger than the Kindle — more like an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. And it will use technology from E Ink, a Cambridge, Mass. startup Hearst backed more than a decade ago. Hearst hopes to distribute electronic versions of its magazines and newspapers on the device, which a Hearst executive told Fortune will be out later this year.

It's like a terminal cancer patient putting faith in some herbalist's shark-bone treatment.

"The question now is, will readers give up their newspapers and magazines for these new readers?" asks Fortune. Uh, no. The question is whether people will give up their iPhones and netbooks for these new readers. Cheap laptops and smartphones are an irreversible trend. Factories in Japan, China, and Korea thunder out the mass-produced parts for these devices, which make their economics compelling. And a PC has the virtue of not being designed by a publisher more interested in protecting an old way of doing a business than serving readers.

Hearst has exercised its E Ink fetish before, when Esquire used it for an expensive, pointless cover. But the fact that Hearst owns a stake in E Ink is the silliest possible reason to champion the technology. Economists would call that a sunk cost: It's money already spent.

Newspaper and magazine publishers seem desperate to find some new trick to preserve the scarcity on which they used to profit. In a world overflowing with media, that is impossible. And editors and publishers are not clever technological tricksters. The E Ink reader will start out black-and-white. Wait, aren't the glossy photos and gorgeous layouts why we pick up magazine sin the first place?

What they ought to be doing is fixing their websites: Adding comments everywhere, publicly displaying the comments and pageviews stories garner, and — crucially — adjusting the story mix in light of that information. It's unlikely to happen. The makers of magazines are so used to dreaming up story ideas in their skyscraper aeries. It will never occur to them that their readers might actually be smarter than they are.

Smart enough, at any rate, not to buy a gadget designed by a magazine guy.

(Image via Gizmodo)