A couple weeks ago, I read an article in a venerable business magazine about the growing use of digital readers and what that might mean for newspaper and magazine publishers. These devices offer the potential to maintain or grow paid circulation as the traditional print readership dwindles. The author expressed some concern that publishers would have trouble adopting a distribution model that entailed offering subscriptions via an open platform that could download competing publications.

Is that a valid concern? I don’t think so. Publishers offer that now. It is called the newsstand for single copy sales and subscription promotion for mail delivery. In each case, the reader buys because of the value (s)he attaches to the brand. Subscription via e-reader seems a natural extension, if the technology is widely available before print publishers have scaled back their editions due to declining circulation and advertising revenue.

By now we all know about the problem of free content on the web and how publishers hurt themselves by taking that path in the 1990s. But most people don’t read newspapers and magazines in depth on computers. It isn’t a fully comfortable experience. That is still a benefit of print – more control, less hurry – engagement. That is where the e-readers or similar portable devices can come in, by allowing us to maintain familiar and comfortable habits.

I suppose that most people who read newspapers and magazines still do so while commuting or relaxing at home. There may not be a better way to take in serious journalism. So, the e-reader can be a suitable replacement for paper and ink. The engineers are working to improve resolution of the devices. But there is another barrier to overcome if the e-reader subscription is to work. There has to be enough affordable download capacity for a subscriber to plug in the reader, log in, load the paper and head off to the bus, train or subway. Use can’t be locked into a page at a time online setting.

If we can get to that point (before publishers run out of cash), I think advertisers will follow, especially since they’ll be able to load more creative ads than they can in hard copy. Those ads may also record demographic metrics if they are marked by readers for further exploration, whether on or off line. Loyal readers will pay for the content (although it will replace the hard copy.) A loyal, defined paid circulation base plus measurable ad interaction will likely have value for advertisers.

Of course, there is still one problem, as a friend of mine pointed out — what will I use to start the fire in my wood stove? I can’t roll up and burn an e-reader.

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