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De Tijd e-paper experiment

Submitted by on January 30, 2012 – 20:10One Comment

The « press cri­sis » has been ongo­ing for more than twenty years now. It has to be said here that this cri­sis mainly con­cerns the daily news­pa­pers. In Bel­gium, the pub­lish­ers rely on state funds to keep their news­pa­pers alive. Every year, the French-speaking Com­mu­nity allo­cates €6.2 mil­lions to the daily news­pa­pers. In the Dutch-speaking Com­mu­nity, the sys­tem is slightly dif­fer­ent as the aid is not direct. Instead, the Flem­ish gov­ern­ment finan­cially sup­port the train­ing of jour­nal­ists and “qual­ity jour­nal­ism” projects.

There are many causes to this press cri­sis: the decrease in adver­tis­ing bud­gets, the rise of the price of paper, the short­ened amount of time that peo­ple ded­i­cate to read­ing the press, the dis­ap­pear­ance of the sales points, etc 1. But one of the causes that is most often pointed out is the com­pe­ti­tion of the inter­net and new tech­nolo­gies. These new means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­vide a wide range of infor­ma­tion for free, giv­ing peo­ple the impres­sion that there is no need to buy news­pa­pers to be informed any­more. The con­se­quence is a severe drop in news­pa­per sales. Over the last decade, the Flem­ish news­pa­per sales fell from 1.500.000 to 1.340.000 copies per day, which means that the pub­lish­ers lost about 10% of the news­pa­per cir­cu­la­tion. The sit­u­a­tion is even worse in the Bel­gian French-speaking com­mu­nity as the cir­cu­la­tion has decreased by 20% since 2000.

De Tijd e-paper exper­i­ment

If new tech­nolo­gies are partly respon­si­ble for the press cri­sis, they might also help to solve it! In this state of mind, many news­pa­per pub­lish­ers put great hopes in the e-paper tech­nol­ogy. In 2006, the Flem­ish busi­ness news­pa­per De Tijd was the first to use this tech­nol­ogy in the media field. It started a unique exper­i­ment in Europe by launch­ing a trial ver­sion of its news­pa­per on elec­tronic paper. This project was co-financed by the Tijd’s part­ners: the Uni­ver­sity of Leu­ven, the Cen­tre on media research VUB Smit, the Insti­tute for Broad­band Tech­nol­ogy and Philips. For this exper­i­ment, 200 read­ers, mainly com­pany direc­tors, were selected on a vol­un­tary basis. Each of them received an A5-format elec­tronic device called “e-reader”.

Every morn­ing, from this ter­mi­nal, the Tijd read­ers could down­load the lat­est edi­tion of their news­pa­per and flip through it using a scroll­bar. More impor­tantly, they also had the oppor­tu­nity to “per­son­alise the con­tent of the news­pa­per by cre­at­ing their own port­fo­lio in which they could tar­get spe­cific finan­cial infor­ma­tion or stock rates. Then, they had the pos­si­bil­ity to eas­ily file the arti­cles“2 thanks to a 224 Mo flash mem­ory. In addi­tion, the e- reader had a Wifi and a USB con­nec­tion, enabling the users to update the infor­ma­tion dur­ing the day.

Strengths of the e-paper:

The core of this e-paper tech­nol­ogy is an elec­tronic ink con­sist­ing of mil­lions of micro­cap­sules in the size of a hair. “These micro­cap­sules con­tain white pos­i­tive and black neg­a­tive mag­netic par­ti­cles float­ing in a clear liq­uid. These white and black par­ti­cles appear depend­ing on elec­tri­cal fields being pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive. This gives the look of black ink on paper. An elec­tronic dis­play is cre­ated by print­ing the E-ink on thin, plas­ti­cised, paper like sheets.

By com­bin­ing the qual­i­ties of printed paper with the strengths of the Inter­net, the e-paper brings two oppo­site uni­verses together into a new way of gath­er­ing and read­ing infor­ma­tion. First, thanks to the use of e-ink, the con­trast is as good as on printed paper. “This tech­nol­ogy gives sharp­ness six times higher than an ordi­nary LCD dis­play”. In addition, unlike a tablet, the e-paper doesn’t need a back­ground light which makes it highly read­able even in the sun­light and from dif­fer­ent angles. Sec­ond, it pro­vides the reader with an inter­ac­tive expe­ri­ence as it makes it pos­si­ble to write a note, search for infor­ma­tion, use a hyper­link, add sound and video or reg­u­larly update the news. Third, it is more eco-friendly than other elec­tronic devices because it only con­sumes power when the infor­ma­tion is updated. Even when the power is turned off, the image on the dis­play remains.

If used clev­erly, the e-paper can be a real oppor­tu­nity to tackle the prob­lems that the media com­pa­nies are cur­rently fac­ing. Firstly, it can help to extend the read­er­ship to five cat­e­gories of peo­ple: “early adopters, read­ers in sparsely pop­u­lated areas, busi­ness travellers, senior cit­i­zens and young peo­ple”. Sec­ondly, the main weak­ness of the news­pa­per is that it pro­vides the reader in the morn­ing with news from the day before that are some­times already out­dated. The e-paper makes it pos­si­ble to over­come this weak­ness by updat­ing the news within the lay­out of the morn­ing paper. There­fore, the peo­ple who believed that buy­ing a news­pa­per had become point­less could be attracted by this tech­nol­ogy. Lastly and most impor­tantly, in Bel­gium the cost of print­ing and trans­porta­tion cur­rently rep­re­sents 42% of the total cost of a news­pa­per whereas the e-paper tech­nol­ogy has the “abil­ity to deliver new edi­tions instantly and with­out the need to print copies and trans­port them over dis­tances to thou­sands of retail out­lets and mil­lions of sub­scribers”. In other words, rather then wait­ing for the news­pa­per to dis­ap­pear, the media com­pa­nies would save a lot of money by turn­ing mas­sively to the e-newspaper, not to men­tion it would greatly ben­e­fit the environment.

Weak­nesses of the e-paper:

Despite all these advan­tages, the Tijd exper­i­ment was not really a suc­cess. The main rea­son for this is that De Tijd was bought by a news media com­pany dur­ing the exper­i­ment and “the new owner decided to cut all unnec­es­sary expenses, includ­ing the e-paper project” 3.

For instance, the e-newspaper was never updated dur­ing the day because this required to have a staff and means ded­i­cated to this task. But there were other issues as well: “The feed­back from the users was not very pos­i­tive. Many were dis­ap­pointed because they were expect­ing an e-paper that would look more like a news­pa­per” 4.

In one of his books, the dig­i­tal news­pa­pers spe­cial­ist, Roger Fidler, pro­vides an inter­est­ing analy­sis of the con­di­tions needed to have a suc­cess­ful e-newspaper project:

In order “to func­tion as a prac­ti­cal alter­na­tive to mechan­i­cal print­ing and pulp paper, dig­i­tal print media […] will need to be highly portable and sim­ple enough for any­one to use with­out hav­ing to read a man­ual. As with tra­di­tional print media, dig­i­tal forms must be com­fort­able and con­ve­nient to read while lying in bed, rid­ing on a sub­way, din­ing in a restau­rant, or sit­ting on a park bench. They will also need to inte­grate some of the more com­pelling ele­ments of cyber­me­dia, such as inter­ac­tiv­ity, hyper­text, and audio/video clips, with­out sac­ri­fic­ing the read­abil­ity and ease of using paper” 5.

While the e-reader from the Tijd exper­i­ment included many of these char­ac­ter­is­tics, it failed by being more “geeky” than “user-friendly”. Most spe­cial­ists agree that for the e-paper to become a “more per­sonal tool for news con­sump­tion […] it is nec­es­sary to pro­duce a device that will give a sim­i­lar expe­ri­ence to that of hold­ing a news­pa­per in one’s hand, in terms of the look and feel of a news­pa­per” 6. For instance, the e-newspaper should be as thin as a sheet of paper and fold­able like a news­pa­per. This was not pos­si­ble to achieve in 2006.

While the actual e-paper was very thin, it had to be framed by a 2cm-thick piece of plas­tic hold­ing the bat­tery, the speak­ers and nav­i­ga­tional but­tons. Con­se­quently it was impos­si­ble to fold the device. How­ever, this prob­lem is being solved as sev­eral high-tech com­pa­nies have recently unveiled pro­to­types of flex­i­ble e-newspapers.

Another aspect to take into account when try­ing to cre­ate a suc­cess­ful e-newspaper is the fact that “there is a tra­di­tion of lay­out (visual pat­tern) for news­pa­pers that seem to be taken for granted – the so called broad­sheet lay­out”. At the time of the Tijd project, the tech­nol­ogy was lim­ited in terms of col­ors and screen size. The A-5 dis­play for­mat pro­vided for the exper­i­ment did not allow a broad­sheet lay­out to be dis­played cor­rectly. But again, the tech­nol­ogy has evolved in such a way that it is now pos­si­ble to cre­ate an e-paper the same size than a newspaper.

The last stum­bling block it seems is the price. The Philips e-reader, Iliad, pro­vided for the Tijd exper­i­ment cost about €400 which, as Peter Bruynseels admits, was a mat­ter of con­cern for the users 7. The solu­tion would be to mass-produce these prod­ucts but the media com­pa­nies don’t seem will­ing to invest in this field for the moment.


Other sim­i­lar exper­i­ments took place in Europe (Les Echos in 2007, De Volk­skrant and NRC Han­dels­blad in 2008) but they all had the same fate because of the rea­sons pre­sented ear­lier in this paper. Today, many news­pa­pers claim to have an e-paper ver­sion but frankly, for most of them, it just con­sists in putting a pdf ver­sion of the morn­ing paper on a e- reader.

In the final analy­sis, I believe that the prob­lem of these exper­i­ments is that they either took place too early or peo­ple had too high expec­ta­tions on a tech­nol­ogy that was just start­ing to develop. It would be a pity to stop invest­ing in the e-paper because, as I explained before, it can help media com­pa­nies to face the “press cri­sis”. Besides, it has a strong added value com­pared to the paper ver­sion, the online ver­sion or the “app.” ver­sion of a newspaper.

I think it will be long way before we can see for real the scene from Minor­ity Report in which a new head­line pops up in the lay­out of the e-newspaper of some­one rid­ing in the metro. But as a con­clu­sion, I would like to quote Ihlström, Akesson and Nordqvist: “We believe that there is a great poten­tial of this new media to be suc­cess­ful for news­pa­per pub­lish­ing. But, the news­pa­per design­ers new stand before the great­est design chal­lenge since Guten­berg”.

1Rousseaux (Nico­las), “Causes et solu­tions endogènes à la crise du jour­nal­isme écrit général­iste“, Les Cahiers du Jour­nal­isme, n°2, Decem­ber 1996, p. 166 – 175 
2Inter­view with Peter Bruynseels, ex-project leader in De Tijd’s IT depart­ment, on 28 Novem­ber 2011. 
5Fidler (Roger), Medi­amor­pho­sis: Under­stand­ing New Media, Pine Forge Press, Thou­sand Oaks, California, 1997. 
6Shapira (Bracha) and al., “ePa­per: A per­son­al­ized mobile news­pa­per”, Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can soci­ety for infor­ma­tion sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy, vol. 60, issue 11, Novem­ber 2009, p. 2333 – 2346. 
7Inter­view with Peter Bruynseels, Op.Cit.

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One Comment »

  • Bruno Rives says:

    I was part of Les Echos e-paper exper­i­ment, hav­ing been involved in the light e-reader and server plat­form con­cep­tion. Some key points were miss­ing (although I strongly rec­om­mended it): 3G com­mu­ni­ca­tion, new for­mat, inter­ac­tive approaches and news­pa­per design.
    I read news mainly on Mac­Book Air and iPhone, but yes­ter­day I bought Le Monde on Kin­dle, it is well made and use­ful for some­body hav­ing this device. You buy it in sec­onds.
    I think flex­i­ble e-paper will be a major step in the news­pa­per busi­ness, and we are still inter­ested to exper­i­ment it.

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