Thursday, July 24, 2008
News Flash From the Cover of Esquire: Paper Magazines Can Be High Tech, Too
By TIM ARANGO
On the third floor of the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown Manhattan rests a tribute to Esquire's glory years - a collection of 92 covers from the 1960s and early 1970s that have become, in the museum's words, "essential to the iconography of American culture."
That illustrious history hangs over the magazine's effort to celebrate its 75th year. Its attempt to add to the annals of museum-worthy covers includes a nod to the digital age: an electronic cover, using admittedly rudimentary technology, that will flash "the 21st Century Begins Now," when it appears on newsstands in September.
"I hope it will be in the Smithsonian," said David Granger, Esquire's editor in chief, in a recent interview while showing prototypes of the cover - an early version has a cord sticking out that attaches to a battery pack.
If it does wind up in the Smithsonian, it will need a power source; on its own, the magazine will run out of juice after 90 days. Mr. Granger knows some will see the cover as a gimmick - but he says he thinks the technology behind it, which has been used for supermarket displays but never embedded in a magazine, speaks to the possibilities of print.
"Magazines have basically looked the same for 150 years," Mr. Granger said. "I have been frustrated with the lack of forward movement in the magazine industry."
Pointing to the prototype sitting on a conference room table, Mr. Granger said, "The possibilities of print have just begun. In two years, I hope this looks like cellphones did in 1982, or car phones."
The company that produced the cover, E Ink, has a track record of innovation - its technology is used in Amazon.com's e-book device, the Kindle. E Ink, a private company based in Cambridge, Mass., counts Hearst, Esquire's parent, as a major shareholder.
"In 2000 or so, we went to Cambridge to see if they could demonstrate the technology," Mr. Granger said. "They were doing store displays, so it was premature for a magazine."
Two years ago, at a Hearst management retreat, Mr. Granger again raised the idea. This time it would be possible, he was told, if Hearst invested seed money to create a battery small enough to fit in a magazine.
"This is really the 1.0 version," said Kevin O'Malley, Esquire's publisher. "Imagine when the consumer walks by a newsstand and sees that it is alive."
Digital technology holds the promise of making the dissemination of information much easier and cheaper - no paper, no trucks - but this experiment by Esquire was the opposite.
"The whole chain had to be reinvented," said Peter Griffin, the deputy editor. "The interesting thing is it has almost nothing to do with the normal way of putting out a magazine."
First Esquire had to make a six-figure investment to hire an engineer in China to develop a battery small enough to be inserted in the magazine cover. The batteries and the display case are manufactured and put together in China. They are shipped to Texas and on to Mexico, where the device is inserted by hand into each magazine. The issues will then be shipped via trucks, which will be refrigerated to preserve the batteries, to the magazine's distributor in Glazer, Ky.
"We are trying to combine a 21st-century technology with a 19th-century manufacturing process," Mr. Granger said.
All of this, of course, is expensive. Which is why it was necessary for Esquire to find a sponsor. In stepped Ford Motor, which will have an advertisement on the inside of the cover that will use the same technology to promote its new minivan-sport utility vehicle, the Flex.
"We wanted the marketing plan for this vehicle to include motion as much as possible," said Usha Raghavachari, communications manager for S.U.V.'s for Ford North America Marketing. "We had a desire to make our marketing launch as unique as the vehicle. This makes our print plan a little more energizing."
Esquire has exclusive use of E Ink's technology for use in print through 2009, and Mr. Granger said he hopes to come up with new ideas for it. "This is probably just a limited view of its use," he said.
The electronic cover will be used in only 100,000 copies that go to newsstands - its overall circulation is about 720,000.
What Esquire is doing harks back to a big splash National Geographic made in 1984 when it introduced holography to the mass market by placing a hologram of an eagle on its cover.
Holograms did become widespread in things like greeting cards, even if they did not upend the publishing world.
"Part of the iconic DNA of the magazine is our covers," said Mr. O'Malley, Esquire's publisher. "I fully expect that in 25 to 30 years, this cover will be in a museum."