PARIS: Paul-François Fournier, an executive at France Télécom 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-gray 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 Télécom 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 & Go, 120 people in France have been given electronic paper devices, allowing them to download the contents of the newspapers over France Télécom's wireless network.
France Télécom is not the first company to experiment with putting newspapers onto electronic paper. The Kindle, sold by the online bookseller Amazon in the United States, already allows customers to subscribe to e-paper versions of 19 newspapers from around the world. Amazon plans to sell the Kindle in non-U.S. markets, too, though no timetable has been set, according to Andrew Herdener, a spokesman.
But Read & 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 Télécom 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 Télécom and the newspapers intend to sell ads, with the revenue shared among them.
France Télécom has not yet worked out many details of the program, like how revenue would be divided, or how the subscriptions to the electronic papers would be offered. 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.
"We are there to support this transformation," he said. "We are not there to do their business. We are not very good writers."
French newspapers could use the help. Advertising revenue in national, paid-for dailies fell 9 percent last year alone. Only 42 percent of adults regularly read newspapers in France, compared with 73 percent in Germany and 48 percent in the United States, 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 & Go would bolster use of France Télécom's high-speed mobile network.
"There's incentive on all sides here," said Richard Shim, an analyst at IDC in San Mateo, California. "It's a welcome change from the age-old newspaper business model."
The seven French publications participating in Read & Go include most of the country's major dailies: Le Monde, Le Figaro, Le Parisien and Libération, which is being added to the test this month; a sports daily, L'Équipe; a business newspaper, Les Échos, and a weekly entertainment and culture magazine called Télérama. Some books and other content are also available.
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 Libération, 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 & 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 on the newsstand, 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 a product being advertised.
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 percent 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 & Go test, Orange is using a reader made by iRex Technologies, a spinoff of 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.
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 Télécom 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 be able to offer two or three different models if the service is introduced commercially.
Sabine Gueraud, a Parisian participating in the France Télécom 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 Enchainé. It is also not possible to clip and save individual articles.
"It's not as easy to use as a newspaper," she said.
No sign of the IHT in this project. Given it's French HQ, I'd have thought an ideal testing ground for the NYT.
But of course the IHT isn't headquartered in Paris, is it? It is after all the global edition of the NYT, and the executive editor doesn't even hold that title anymore: he's now called Editor, Global Edition (of the NYT).