Flipboard — the iPad app that lets users create their own digital magazine from their Twitter stream, Facebook wall and RSS feeds — was created out of a desire to reinvent media consumption for a digital and tablet age, but that doesn’t mean it can’t help existing publications repair their damaged business models, editorial director Josh Quittner told attendees at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference in San Francisco on Monday. A former editorial staffer at Time Inc., Quittner said that Flipboard wants to be useful to users as a way of helping them filter the news, but also wants to help media entities by remaking the world of digital advertising for a touch-screen era.
When Flipboard founder and CEO Mike McCue was developing the service with partner Evan Doll, Quittner says, he drew on his background as a staffer at Netscape Communications — the original web browser company — in the mid-1990s, and tried to imagine a world in which the web had to be rebuilt from the ground up for a digital age. What would it look like? How would people consume it? One of the first things the two thought of was that it had to be social, says Quittner, “because that’s how we find things now. You have to take social into account when you’re thinking about media, and you have to take these new touch-type screens into account as well.”
So Flipboard (which has been downloaded 3.5 million times) allowed users to quickly browse their Twitter and Facebook streams in a magazine-style layout, before adding more sources of information — including RSS feeds, but also mainstream publishers and content companies. Just as Netscape and other web browsers created a software layer that allowed users to consume the web more easily, Flipboard was designed as a magazine-style browser for the social web, Quittner said: “Now that we have all these social services, what we’re trying to do is to create a kind of social browser on top of that.”
Although it could be seen as a disruptive force for media companies, in that it allows users to construct their own magazines or newspapers out of content from different sources, Quittner said that Flipboard is also interested in helping media companies figure out how to make digital media work from a revenue standpoint — and the company believes that advertising is a viable way of doing that, especially on tablets. The way that advertising used to work in print, with “beautiful, relevant advertisement placed interstitially between pages of content,” works really well, Quittner said.
“One of the wonderful things about tablets is that we’re back to pages again, and they work really well for monetizing media,” he said — and Flipboard recently launched ads for a number of media partners such as Conde Nast. “For big media companies, the answer [to revenue questions] isn’t going to come from one magic bullet like one tablet or one device,” Quittner said. “Where once there was one revenue stream, now there’s going to be 10 revenue streams [and] hopefully Flipboard will provide one of those streams.”
Although Flipboard currently sorts the content in the app according to what is the most recently published, Quittner said that upcoming versions of the service will include more “curation” in order to show users more relevant content — and that the filtering will be driven both by the company’s proprietary algorithms, but also by human editors (Zite, a Flipboard competitor that was recently bought by CNN, offers recommendations for readers based on their consumption patterns and also explicit ratings of what they read). In a world with so many sources of information, curation “becomes this really important, critical, highly-specialized editorial function,” Quittner said.
Flipboard closed a $50-million funding round in April from a group led by Insight Ventures that values the company at $200 million.