Esquire to geeks: hack our e-paper magazine cover

esquire_eink_mockup.jpg

Update: PT took apart the cover now that it's on the stands and it's not at all what we'd hoped. Pity. [Make]

E-paper cover a "stupid gimmick"? No way, Brian. Esquire's animated 75th anniversary cover is the flashing, squawking future of magazines.

It's pretty easy to see the far future. Cheap, disposable e-paper magazines on subway newsstands and on the racks of your airport's Hudson News. Each one thin, flexible, disposable. Just a couple of pages, with bright, glossy color, wirelessly updated with the latest issues of your favorite rag. Need something to read? Buy a new e-mag — or press a button to refresh your virtually dog-eared copy to this month's edition.

That's about five years away, just like it has been for the last decade.

But deputy editor Peter Griffin can tell you what magazine stands will look like this October, when then the 75th Anniversary issue of Esquire with an e-paper cover will be unloaded from refrigerated vans and slotted into the rack. For the first time ever, one of the magazines will be animated.

It's not too flashy yet. "The order of the words will change," says Griffin. "There will be images that will turn on and off." The images are black-and-white in four shades of grey; a murky newspaper image, at best, but colored by a sheet of transparent, tinted plastic that will be fixed over the top.

It's the same e-paper that's inside Amazon's Kindle e-book reader, except this sheet of e-paper — two, actually; there's a second sheet on the inside cover that advertises the Ford Flex crossover SUV — will cost just a few bucks, not $350.

Esquire can sell the e-paper covers at the standard cover price because of the Ford advertisement, which has "defrayed a lot of the cost," explains Griffin. That's not the cop-out it might at first glance seem: should the Esquire cover make a splash, other advertisers will be willing to underwrite the use of e-paper in other magazines.

As long as they're Hearst magazines, that is. Hearst, Esquire's publisher (and one of my employers; I'm a contributing editor at Popular Mechanics), has brokered a one-year exclusivity with eInk, the e-paper manufacturer.

But on to the question most of the geeks have been asking: Can you rip out the cover and use it for your own projects?

Griffin says it should be possible — "We look forward to seeing what people do it" — although there isn't any discrete input on the custom-designed circuit board that will control the e-paper. The data will be baked into the circuitry. Figuring out how to reprogram the e-paper controller or installing an entirely new one will be up to the hackers.

Good news about the battery, though: it should be trivial to replace.

"The batteries are pretty standard, small batteries," says Griffin, some sort of coin cell battery that can be purchased from a variety of retailers. That means when the soldered-in battery dies after an estimated ninety days, replacing it shouldn't be too much of a challenge.

The cover itself isn't going to be completely stiff, having some of the give and bend of real paper.

Griffin says the cover is "like a really heavy magazine stock, but not like cardboard," about three millimeters thick. He thinks they could have gotten it even thinner.

"The thickness in the cover has nothing to do with the circuit or the technology; it's the protection we had to build into magazine for the binding. If we were to create a demonstration cover without worrying about the padding needed for the printing process it would be not much not thicker than a regular magazine cover."

Image: Our mockup of a classic cover using an e-paper cover. The actual 75th anniversary editions have not yet been finalized. And they wouldn't show us the prototypes, the bastards.

Old Media, New Medium
New York offers a technology writer valuable perspective. It's impossible to crow about the death of old media when you're submerged in a sea of smart long-form journalism. (Compare this to San Francisco, where every person is either building a crowd-sourced Web 2.0 application that will obviate traditional journalism — or a journalist reporting about start-ups for an old media outlet.) And I am, as the JPEG goes, From the Internet. I first wrote professionally online; I developed many of my opinions and rhetorical ability online. But as I began to practice journalism, I quickly realized that it would be presumptuous to throw away the collective wisdom of a hundred-and-fifty years of journalists, full-time craftsmen who beat the streets, picked up the phone, and took the time to fully report their stories.

Bear in mind that I am also aware that a lot of real journalism happens online in new media outfits by citizen journalists; I'm also aware that most of the work I do isn't journalism. That's my point, actually: journalism is a process and a craft, one that sometimes the support of a "old" media structure like a magazine or a newspaper to be practiced. Old media outlets offer content that citizen journalists don't always have the luxury to produce. The future of media is a mish-mash of both professional and amateur journalism — a very good thing.

What's dying is paper. And it's about time. Esquire should be lauded for having the grit to put a project like this together; it certainly sounds like it was a real pain in the ass to get right. (And Griffin told me they're still working through prototypes!)

E-paper magazine covers aren't without their downsides — Esquire has essentially just introduced the blink tag to print — but for this short interlude of perhaps a couple of years while e-paper is still too rudimentary to replace glossy magazine paper entirely but cheap enough to be used as chrome in advertisements and covers, I don't see anything wrong with enjoying this rare sight: a brief moment when our sci-fi pop culture future is about to flash plainly into view. – Joel Johnson

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