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Are Apps Like Flipboard the Future of Media?

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If you spend any time at all with an iPad (s aapl), it soon becomes second nature to swipe through webpages, books and magazines with just a finger stroke, to the point where this has become the preferred way of consuming content for many digital natives — whether it’s a book, a newspaper or a Twitter or Facebook feed. Flipboard was one of the first to take advantage of this with a magazine-style, swipe-powered interface. Others have come along as well, including Zite and Pulse, as well as video-based apps like ShowYou. If nothing else, such apps are showing traditional media entities what readers really want when it comes to digital content: smart aggregation, customization and personalization, and a better interface.

Flipboard not only came out of the gate early with a new kind of media browsing experience, but it has been plowing new ground since its launch as well. The app began as a simple way of flipping through Twitter streams and Facebook feeds, but not long ago, it added support for RSS feeds, which expanded the range of content available dramatically. More recently, it has signed content deals with traditional media outlets, including an agreement to carry Oprah-related content in the app.

The company also just closed a $50-million round of financing from venture funds, including Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byers and Index Ventures, which gives it a substantial amount of resources to expand even further.

While its competitor Zite — a startup based in Vancouver, British Columbia — has been hit with copyright-infringement claims by a number of traditional publishers because of the way it represents their content inside its app, Flipboard has so far been careful to stay on the good side of the content producers it’s aggregating. That bodes well for the company’s plans to sign up more publishers and bring them into the app. Co-founder and CEO Mike McCue has said he wants to turn Flipboard into a multibillion-dollar business.

Whether Flipboard gets there or not remains to be seen, but one thing has become clear to me the more I use the iPad: Apps such as Zite and Flipboard are a much more natural way to consume content on a tablet, and the aggregation they provide is like having a customized newspaper — the so-called “Daily Me” — available at any time. The recommendation features in Zite need a little work, and Flipboard hasn’t even scratched the surface of that kind of offering (despite having acquired semantic technology startup Ellerdale), but they are both already offering something that looks and feels like a digital-age newspaper.

So where does that leave The New York Times (s nyt), Newsweek (s iaci) and other traditional media? It leaves them with largely unappealing iPad apps that offer not much more than a fancier version of their websites. Apart from photo galleries and interactive advertising (which probably appeals to advertisers, but not necessarily to readers), there’s little that takes advantage of the touch interface or the tablet platform, and yet the New York Times and others are trying to convince readers to pay for their apps.

Why wouldn’t an iPad user just pull in content from all of those outlets — and hundreds more — via RSS or Twitter, and then read it in Flipboard or Zite? That is the bottom line media outlets are faced with.

That’s why, if and when Mike McCue and Flipboard come to the offices of these newspapers and magazines and other content producers, their executives should think twice before saying “thanks, but we’re fine.” They aren’t fine — far from it. And as Frederic Filloux pointed out recently in a blog post, any one of those media outlets could have come up with something similar to Flipboard or Zite, but didn’t. Instead, they’ve spent their money on apps that amount to copies of their websites, hoping Steve Jobs might help them out of the hole they’ve dug themselves.

With Flipboard and Zite and similar tools, content companies have a chance to find alternate ways to reach readers — and possibly monetize that relationship in some way other than just an old-fashioned paywall, if apps are willing to license the content and/or share in the advertising and other revenue. The aggregation, personalization and customization that such apps allow is the future of content consumption, and traditional media outlets better figure out how to ride that wave or be crushed by it.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user jphilipg

18 Responses to “Are Apps Like Flipboard the Future of Media?”

  1. Neil Sorensen

    I have a new Asus Eee PC with a multi-touch screen and windows 7 professional. The touch screen works pretty well, not quite as sensitive as an iPod, but essentially the same. So far, however, there are hardly any apps available for this computer. I have to download and install the normal program versions, which are not really adapted to touch screens. Of course I can use the regular programs with the touch screen, but I am waiting for a windows app store, which reportedly will be included in windows 8. I wish it were possible to install a parallel operating system for the touch screen so I could use that feature independently from loading windows. Is this possible?

  2. Mathew, you hit the trifecta with the three categories you’ve pegged as necessary to successfully drive content consumption: aggregation, customization and personalization. Clearly this is where the traditional players like NYT are missing the boat. Sure you can “personalize” the mix of stories in the way you can superficially “view” them but there’s no aggregation and that’s a huge void. It’s also easy to see how they view this part of the equation as a looming threat.

    On the flip side of the Flipboard story (sorry for the bad pun), as a former journalist I also get concerned about people sourcing their news primarily by popularity. It’s not difficult to envision how easy it will become to game the system. So your three drivers hopefully act as a buffer against reading only the news that everyone likes.

  3. Joe Patel

    Jonathon is spot on. There is no editor in these apps. These apps just pull whatever crap that is online and squeeze them into the program. When u read the times. The editor add a little bit of cars, house, interviews, world news etc. Lots of the articles actually feels fresh.
    You have to admit that lots of sites online including the om just have one mono tone and repeat the same thinking on similar items over and over and over again. I am not saying that its not entertaining. Everyone likes to watch wrestling. But the real media knows to bring fresh content.

  4. Exciting to hear what is on the horizon. You nailed it at the beginning when you referenced the way digital natives like receiving information- we’re in the midst of information transformation.

  5. Jonathan S-B

    The trouble with Flipboard is that it is pretty much theatre over true functionality. The beauty of magazines is that they provide a curated information environment where there is 9usually) a clearly defined hierarchy of information. This hierarchy is what gives magazines their unique appeal and creates “the magazine experience.” For all its cleverness, Fipboard does a very poor job of recreating this experience. It has pretentions to it but those pretentions are not borne out by the product.

    The truth is that what is broken in the magazine world is the typical magazine business model, not the magazine experience.

    Ironically, everyone gives great plaudits to Flipboard and yet their business model is currently no more robust or healthy than the olde worlde print products they hope to usurp.

  6. Long ago I moved from reading the pages of newspapers to getting my news from the internet from my desktop. Then I moved to Twitter. Now as a new iPad owner, I go to Flipboard. With Oprah being the latest to join Flipboard, maybe others will follow suit?

  7. I would agree with gfreishtat. Publishers need to “they need to BE the FlipBoard’s and Huff Po’s of the world”. We have developed an app for publishers that allows them to pull their content from the web through blogs and RSS feeds and turn it into a digital edition. Its in public beta at the moment, check it out at PressJack.

    I think that the content owners need to start thinking about revenue on an article by article basis rather than on site traffic. Allow their content to be scooped by “Magregators” on the condition that they include their advertising. The guardian have this system in place where you can use their content in your apps on the condition that you include their advertising.

    The battle between publishers and magregators over how much content is been shown could easily be solved if content owners would simply enhance their RSS feeds to include more information in their feed. It wouldnt have to be the full article but enough for the magregators to fill a section on the page.

  8. This post is spot on. Many publishers are behaving just like the record labels did when the internet dislocation hit their industry. FlipBoard is compelling because consumers do not want to go to 20 places to find 20 things that interest them (Google model). However, the tricky part is yet to come from Flipboard and other aggregators. Traditional publishers have a hard time splitting up the revenue from their very expensive content and really don’t want FlipBoard to compete for the attention of their consumers. FlipBoard wants to be “friends” with publishers much Google was their friend (right before Google reach 48% of all online advertising).

    The answer for publishers is pretty clear — they need to BE the FlipBoard’s and Huff Po’s of the world. They need to embrace emerging technology and allow consumers to discover content from around the web THROUGH their brand or site. Publishers can never produce enough of their own content to satisfy consumers new expectations — that genie is just not going back in the bottle.

    Publishers must curate the third party content they cannot afford to produce into their site. They cannot afford to keep sending their consumers away to find it (much like Washington Post’s announcement of today) and cannot afford to produce it. Likewise, they must start letting their content be consumed on other sites and get paid for it — that their business — produce great content and monetize it from “audience” -either on their site or elsewhere. To make this possible, publishers require granular control over their brand and content and an inexpensive way to allow their content to “route” intelligently.

    These new technologies and infrastructures are being created to empower publishers to become the “lens” through which consumers discover content. When consumers think of the Washington Post with the same delight they have from using Flipboard, the publishers will have won….

    Gregg Freishtat
    CEO, Vertical Acuity

  9. I think the real question is why newspaper apps don’t haven’t taken the same user-customisable approach as Flipboard etc, and have, instead, clung to the “it looks like a newspaper… with all the sections” approach.

  10. It’s all quite easy – if the content is the advertising, then all means of spreading will only get your advertising more eyeballs…..
    So contentmakers have to understand this….. and thus the ‘problem’ is circumvented.

  11. I think think Flipboard and the redesigned newspaper apps are a nostalgic designer’s wishful thinking. We are now in an era of the stream and it is that way as much for the content as the design because it allows for the consumption of lots of bits of media.

    The NYTimes should be offering their site as a stream and built around the author.

  12. Hi Matthew –
    Thanks for this post as it has been on my mind awhile now. From my observations and feedback from my readers, these apps are a lot of theater. They present well, work well, and they actually provide good information but people still go back and pick up that magazine or paper – – I’m not sure if this is generational or if it’s just the fact that we still have a ways to go yet before you can truly recreate that experience.
    I am hopeful that one day, the “sunday paper” and magazines I enjoy will be on my iPad….

  13. Nicholas

    I’m not even sure it appeals to advertisers as much as the NYT ad sales team… Advertisers are not dumb and want more intelligence.

    That said, I believe that much of the functionality of Flipboard et al is going to wind up being external to such apps.

  14. Edward Kovarski

    In a perfect world I wouldn’t doubt that apps like Flipboard and Zite are the future but it would require the creators of the content to also agree with this notion… With profits eroding quickly for the traditional news outlets, I think they will be bound to put up more pay walls or crack down on people re-purposing their content without their share of ad money.