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Exhausted Publishers Crawl into 21st Century


Time, Condé Nast, and Hearst discover the digital world.

If members of the media were organized into broad characterizations, print publishers would be the old coot in the ramshackle house, cane in hand, yelling at the youngsters to get off the lawn. Tradition and fear of change is so entrenched within the print publishing market that blogs, e-readers, and the mobile Web have largely rendered them obsolete.

But in a last grasp at relevance, several print publishers have banded together to regain a foothold in the digital world -- roughly a decade past the point of necessity.

Time (TWX), Meredith (MDP), Condé Nast, and Hearst will partner up to create an online newsstand which will be available to not only home computers but mobile devices such as iPhones (AAPL), BlackBerries (RIMM), and Android (GOOG) phones as well. The service, which may be announced next month according to The New York Times, has already been dubbed an "iTunes for magazines."

The deal will include more than 50 publications. Among them: The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Time, People, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, and O, The Oprah Magazine.

While The New York Observer reports that the group won't be developing a dedicated e-reader, Kindles (AMZN) and Nooks (BKS) may also be granted access to the content.

Several anonymous sources spoke with the Times and Observer detailing the terms of the upcoming deal and the eagerness among publishing houses to keep up with the (free) competition. With the layoff axe already falling on several employees, drive and ambition to get the service off the ground is high, but one source spoke with the Oberver about the technical difficulty that they face -- and inadvertently gave an inkling to how out of their league they may be:

The really, really hard part is that you've got so many different kinds of devices running on different operating systems. And how do you handle that? The consortium provides one point of contact for the consumer. When you come to the main store, you can get the content any way you want.

This, of course, is a situation that every website and online publisher has faced since different browsers on different operating systems accessed the Internet. The difference with net folks being: For the most part, they've pretty much sorted it out. Mobile versions of popular websites are quite common and -- except for a Flash (ADBE) hang-up here and there -- they'll load how the publisher wants.

But as daunting as the tech side of the service may be to online novices, that sentiment underscores just how behind the times print publishers truly are. Like Detroit automakers, they willfully ignored the warning signs -- plummeting subscription numbers, the explosion of free online content, massive debt -- and maintained that readers will not only come back to physical media but pay for it, too.

Now they're hoping to launch a pay subscription service when even cell phones are able to access free content on the Web? Is there any hope for these people?

The service launch will mark one of the largest partnerships in print media history and could possibly signify an idea almost as outmoded as introducing a new line of VCRs.
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