Oprah OWNs Prime Flipboard Real Estate In First-Of-A-Kind Deal For iPad Mag

Flipboard isn’t making money from publishers yet but it’s getting closer. A deal with Oprah that goes live today marks the first time that the iPad magazine app is carving out a space on its front page for a branded partner section. (Slideshow embedded below.) The two eventually plan to share revenues but for now it’s all about attention for new OWN (NSDQ: DISCA), the Oprah Winfrey Network — and a sign that Flipboard is moving from tech app to mainstream. “We do expect that both of us will be making money with it. That’s the intent,” Flipboard CEO Mike McCue tells paidContent.

For much of the time since Flipboard captured imaginations with its July 2010 launch, the company has worked with publishers on an exploratory basis, hoping to show them its value while it evolved as an app and a business model. “We’re part of the way there,” says McCue. “We’re certainly beyond the initial trial phase. We’ve learned a lot but we’re still not quite at the point where revenue’s changing hands and we have a fully articulated model.”

At the same time, Flipboard’s user base has been evolving. When it first started, a lot of subscribers — heavy on early adopters — opted for the tech feed, not that many for fashion or style. Now, says McCue, it’s “pretty much 50-50” and has been changing rapidly since the iPad 2 launched last month. “We’ve been seeing this accelerating trend to a much broader demographic.”

That’s one reason the timing is right for the deal with Oprah, which gives OWN front-page space. The only other dedicated space with fresh installs goes to Twitter and Facebook. Users can customize the app to drop any of the three or move them to the next page but that it’s there at all has particular meaning. Not only does Oprah, an iPad enthusiast, personally like Flipboard — “it means that we’re finally getting past the typical early adopter crowd, much more of a mainstream business, more of a mainstream audience,” says McCue.

As for OWN, the launch was tied to today’s Discovery upfront and the new network’s programming announcements. It’s not the first iPad app for Oprah; Hearst already has one for O, The Oprah Magazine . Flipboard’s social media aspects make it very different. The section is built with Flipboard’s own publishing tools, allowing an in-app glossy feel, but the flow of content is based on Twitter lists. That means when Oprah goes on Sunday night tweet toots, has she has the past couple of weeks, the conversation can become part of the app instantly. It also makes it possible to weave in the various people, shows and topics that are part of OWN. Her Farewell Countdown Videos will launch exclusively on Flipboard along with Oprah.com.

How it works: Current Flipboard users will get a message about an update being available; once that is installed, their opening screen will be based on their customized selection but when they flip the page, they’ll get a full-page letter from McCue about the new content and how to “add Oprah to your Flipboard.” Adding Oprah put the section on my second page in the last position, so didn’t displace anything I already had or jump in line.

Not all about Oprah: It’s a bit overshadowed by Oprah but the rest of the Flipboard update may be more important in the long run. As the demos go more mainstream, McCue and his team think they see a need for more bundling. The first wave of geeks (self included) wanted to personalize their reading, New adopters want more served to them when they start using the app and many may not want to do much more beyond picking sections that Flipboard curates.

This update includes new sections for News and Lifestyle from a select group of sources; news sources include The Atlantic Wire, Fox News, ABC (NYSE: DIS) News, CNN, The New Yorker. It almost seems too narrow at first. Personally, I don’t have a problem with Flipboard making deals for branded sections like Oprah or branded pages that get highlighted in its menu but I would have an issue if I found out it was selling slots in sections like this or giving preference without making it clear.

Not Zite: Newcomer Zite has been compared to Flipboard as a news aggregation iPad app but McCue insists the two are very different in their approaches to publishers and content. A batch of publishers sent a cease-and-desist letter to Zite last month, demanding that it stop showing their stories in different formats and stripping ads. Flipboard got some brushback for making it possible to see a publisher’s content in Flipboard rather than its own app but has worked to upgrade the way it shows content and to make original web pages accessible. When it draws from an RSS feed, posts or stories are formatted in Flipboard’s style with a link to the story on the website. When the story comes from a link in Twitter or Facebook, it shows up in Flipboard format with the original web page loading at the same time below it, complete with ads.

McCue: “We have from the very beginning wanted to build a company very much in line with what publishers wanted. That’s been built into our DNA from the get go. We would never imagine being like Zite, where they strip out all the ads, reformat all the content.”