Paris: Paul-Francois Fournier, an executive at France Telecom SA in Paris, thinks he may have found a way to help revive the ailing newspaper industry. It comes in a black plastic rectangular box with a screen half the size of a sheet of copy paper.
The device displays links to several French newspapers, with black-on-grey type and images that look a lot like ink on newsprint. Fournier clicks on one of the links with a stylus, and up come the day’s headlines in Le Monde. Another click and a full article, as it appears in the printed newspaper, fills the screen.
Seven French publications have joined France Telecom to test a so-called electronic paper, a technology that offers what its supporters say is the most convincing electronic facsimile of ordinary paper in existence. In the experiment, called Read and Go, 120 people in France have been given electronic paper devices, allowing them to download the contents of the newspapers over France Telecom’s wireless network.
New edition: Sabine Guerard trying out the Read and Go, an electronic device that allows users to read most of the major newspapers of France on a small portable screen in Paris (Photographs: Paula Kupfer/IHT)
France Telecom is not the first company to experiment with putting newspapers onto electronic paper. The Kindle, sold by the online bookseller Amazon in the US, already allows customers to subscribe to e-paper versions of 19 newspapers from around the world.
But Read and Go includes something that separates it from the Kindle and many of the other electronic newspaper projects: advertisements. For now, they are just sample ads from Orange, the brand name under which France Telecom operates most of its services.
But if the test is successful and the service is introduced commercially—something that could happen as soon as next year, Fournier said—France Telecom and the newspapers intend to sell ads, with the revenue shared among them.
France Telecom has not yet worked out many details of the programme, such as how revenue would be divided. But Fournier, senior vice-president for online advertising at Orange, said the company wanted to help newspapers succeed in the digital world, something they have generally struggled to do on their own.
French newspapers could use the help. Advertising revenue in national, paid-for dailies fell 9% last year alone. Only 42% of adults regularly read newspapers in France, compared with 73% in Germany and 48% in the US, according to the World Association of Newspapers. As in many other markets, rising online readership and ad sales have yet to make up for the declines in print editions.
With 24 million mobile subscribers in France, the company has a vast audience to whom it could market the service. In turn, Read and Go would bolster use of France Telecom's high-speed mobile network.
“There’s incentive on all sides here,” said Richard Shim, an analyst at research firm Interactive Data Corp. in San Mateo, California.
The seven French publications participating in Read and Go include most of the country’s major dailies: Le Monde, Le Figaro, Le Parisien and Liberation, which is being added to the test this month; a sports daily, L’Equipe; a business newspaper, Les Echos, and a weekly entertainment and culture magazine called Telerama.
Marieke van der Donk, senior manager of the entertainment and media practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers in the Netherlands, questioned why the newspapers would allow an outsider to develop an electronic paper business for them, rather than doing it themselves.
“If the media industry is not quick enough, other players will enter their business and take over, like Google did with search advertising,” she said.
But Pascal Laroche, director of digital editions at Liberation, said his paper saw the project as a supplement for its existing outlets—alongside the print, online and mobile versions of the paper—not as something that would eliminate the need for any of those.
“This will not replace the newspaper,” he said. “We hope that, if it is successful, it is the start of a new kind of support” for the industry.
Fournier said the Read and Go editions of the papers would be different from online, print and mobile editions, while borrowing elements from all three. The articles resemble the print versions, for instance, but instead of appearing once a day, they are downloaded and updated automatically, over the cellular network.
The advertisements, meanwhile, resemble print display ads but have some of the interactive qualities of online ads, allowing readers to click on them for more information about the advertised product
Van der Donk said selling ads may be a challenge because media buyers have been skeptical about electronic paper publications, in part because of a lack of standardized ways to measure audiences for the ads.
Consumers will have to be persuaded, too. A recent global survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers showed that readers, on average, were willing to pay only 47% of the cover price of a magazine for the equivalent publication in e-paper form.
And then there is the cost of the devices. In the Read and Go test, Orange is using a reader made by iRex Technologies BV, a spinoff of Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV (Royal Philips Electronics) that is based in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. The participants in the trial have been given the devices at no cost. But a Dutch newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, has been selling iRex readers to subscribers of the paper at a cost of about €500(Rs33,850).
Fournier said that at the end of the test, which is set for September, it would poll the users to see how much they would be willing to pay for the service. One possibility, he said, is that France Telecom could subsidize the cost of the devices, in the same way that it offers mobile phones at less than list price to customers who sign long-term contracts. He said Orange was also speaking with other manufacturers, and hoped to offer two or three different models if the service is introduced commercially.
Sabine Gueraud, a Parisian participating in the France Telecom test, said she liked the fact that electronic paper allowed her to read the news both in complete darkness or bright sunlight, unlike a newspaper or a computer screen.
But Gueraud, a researcher at the University of Paris, said there were also some shortcomings. The test does not include one of her favorite reads, a satirical newspaper called Le Canard Enchaine. It is also not possible to clip and save individual articles.
©2008/International Herald Tribune