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Hearst-backed Skiff e-reader to debut this year

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For more than two years, Hearst Interactive Media, a unit of privately held Hearst Corp., has been quietly incubating a mobile digital publishing “ecosystem,” as the company calls it, through an operating unit called Skiff LLC. Skiff's first e-reader, which debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, is only one element of the company's comprehensive plan to revolutionize magazine and newspaper publishing in digital form.

Skiff is a technologically sophisticated publishing service designed to help publishers monetize digital content in traditional ways, through subscriptions, single-copy sales and advertising.

Although Skiff executives are not giving specifics about the deals they are putting together with publishers, “they are consistent with our publisher-friendly strategy,” said Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, Skiff CMO. “The majority of the revenue from content and advertising is going to go back to the publisher.”

As a wireless digital reading device, the Skiff Reader, stands out from products such as Amazon's Kindle, which is optimized for book reading, in its ability to render magazine and newspaper layouts with a look similar to the print brands, with multiple columns, photos, familiar-looking type fonts and pagination. The Skiff Reader has a large display and a touch-screen user interface. It is due to be available by the end of the year though Sprint's physical and online stores and Skiff's online storefront for an as-yet-undisclosed retail price.

Although Skiff will distribute the Skiff Reader and develop more of its own devices, the platform will be available to other manufacturers. “We have been hard at work building a platform that will be able to transport digital-published content to lots of different devices,” Van Rensselaer said.

To power its publishing service, Skiff built a content platform, adverting platform, CRM database and e-commerce capabilities. “As a consumer, you'll have a single sign-on and you'll be able to access the Skiff storefront on the World Wide Web,” Van Rensselaer said.

Skiff is working with publishers to test and refine the ways content and advertising will flow into the Skiff system, he said. On the editorial side, “there is an upfront process where we work with each publisher on a template and a set of design rules,” he said.

Later, content will be captured by way of an agreed-upon format, such as an XML feed. Then, the Skiff service will “inject” the content “to populate the template, dynamically insert ads and then transport it to any device running the Skiff service,” Van Rensselaer explained.

On the advertising side, “there are a set of unique advertising standards to support e-reading that we are establishing,” he said. “It's different from the Web, and it's different from print.”

Skiff is operating under the principle that publishers will continue to own the relationships they have with their subscribers and advertisers. “The idea is to allow most of the publishers to do their own selling,” Van Rensselaer said. “We're also talking to some of the world's biggest marketers about becoming charter advertisers to help stimulate the concept.”

The relationship with the consumer will be shared by Skiff and the publisher. “It is important for publishers to maintain the to-the-doorstep relationship they have with subscribers,” he said. “We're managing the storefront, and so Skiff will have a relationship with consumers across a variety of different brands, including competitive publishers, but we are going to share the data on the subscribers of individual publications with those publishers so that they will co-own the customer data.”

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