A White Knight for Publishers?

There's still hope for the traditional publishing industry. The old dog is learning new tricks that you can't expect some online upstart to copy.

A special edition of this week's 75th anniversary release of Esquire magazine comes with moving images on the front page and the inside cover. No, not the cheesy "wiggle the book to see pretty colors" trick that you find in plenty of children's books. We're talking about digital imaging here. Privately held parent company Hearst may be onto something.

A thin, flexible lattice of electronic circuits was hosed down with privately held E Ink's namesake product, making for a lightweight, low-power, flexible, black-and-white screen. It's the same technology you see in the Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) Kindle e-book reader, only applied to a much flimsier backing material.

The front page display features blinking and changing text and simple images, reminiscent of the average Web page circa 1994. The inside spread is an ad for the new Ford (NYSE: F  ) Flex, and is much less hypnotic, but still way ahead of the curve in a market where the last breakthrough technology was scratch-n-sniff. 

This feat took seven years of planning and research to pull off. The E Ink pages were manufactured by Chinese partner Nicobar, shipped to Esquire's printing presses in refrigerated trucks, and fed through RR Donnelly's (NYSE: RRD  ) binding process, specially modified to handle the extra-thick cover.

The rise of online information and entertainment has caused massive damage to the good ol' publishing boys. In the past five years, New York Times (NYSE: NYT  ) has lost 69% of its market cap while Gannett (NYSE: GCI  ) dropped 78%, and even Warren Buffett darling Washington Post (NYSE: WPO  ) has underperformed the S&P 500 benchmark. These guys could use a silver bullet, and fast.

These tricks won't be commonplace anytime soon, though. When they do go mainstream, the display technology might have moved to full-color light-emitting OLED displays. Universal Display (Nasdaq: PANL  ) is hard at work on flexible screens for military use, for example. But if the printing presses ever figure out a way to do truly movable type in a cheap, efficient manner, then the magazine and newspaper publishers could get a whole new lease on life -- if they make it that far. And you'd never look at a boring old black-ink-on-white-paper page the same way again.

Further Foolishness:

Universal Display is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Amazon.com is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Check out the Fool's market magic by trying any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares in Universal Display, but holds no position in any of the other companies discussed here. You can check out Anders' holdings if you like, and Foolish disclosure is awaiting the day when it can be digitally emblazoned across your wall, the side of your minivan, or the New York skyline.


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