Hearst readies electronic reader -- a shining backlight in troubled times?

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Fortune reported today that Hearst Corp. -- best known in my world as the company threatening to shutter the San Francisco Chronicle -- is expected to launch an e-book reader this year customized for periodicals. (Thanks to Digital Media Wire for drawing my attention to the story.) It provided few details about the device, and had no clues as to the manufacturer. CNet subsequently confirmed the report. But before we all get misty-eyed about another nail in the coffin of newspapers (note to younger readers: They’re collections of non-interactive stories printed on paper, with no immediate opportunity to post comments), I think it’s worth wondering for a moment about the challenge Hearst faces to develop a user interface as compelling as a broadsheet’s.

One of the great things about the newspaper format is that it surrounds articles about things you know you’re interested in -- say, the latest Yahoo shake-up -- with things that you didn’t know to look for. I’m reminded of this every time I pick up a physical copy of the New York Times. Ordinarily I read the NYT online, scanning the business and tech stories that the paper’s daily e-mail provides links to. But when I look at the printed version, I invariably see lots of other stories that intrigue me for reasons I couldn’t have anticipated. I call that the serendipity effect of the big page, and I’ve yet to see an e-book reader capable of duplicating it. Even the Plastic Logic reader (pictured), which is almost as big as a magazine cover, can’t do it. The screens simply aren’t large enough.


I’m confident that some clever engineers will figure out how to deliver the same benefit on a pocket-sized screen eventually. Readers, chime in if you’ve already seen software that can do it. But it strikes me as a really difficult problem because it’s hard to predict what might lead a consumer of tech stories to be drawn one day to a snappily written piece about a bicycle manufacturer -- other than the fact that it’s snappily written, and what algorithm can detect that quality?

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times’ Opinion Manufacturing Division.