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Are Flipboard and Currents marketing partners or scams that take advantage of publishers?

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Tablet-based reading services like Google (s goog) Current and Flipboard — which says it has doubled its userbase to 90 million in the past six months — are a boon for anyone who wants to consume content quickly and easily in magazine-style format. But are they good for publishers? Josh Marshall, founder of the political blog network Talking Points Memo, doesn’t think they are. In fact, he said in a note posted on the site that they are “a scam against publishers,” and that he has removed TPM’s feeds from both services.

Marshall, who started Talking Points Memo in 2000 as a one-man blog and has built it into one of the largest independent political news and commentary sites, didn’t provide a lot of detail in his post about how Flipboard and Currents are scams against publishers, but it’s not hard to figure out what he means — especially since some other publishers, including Wired and the New Yorker, have also scaled back their involvement with Flipboard in the past.

In a nutshell, some publishers see Flipboard (and to a lesser extent Currents, which isn’t as popular with users) as middlemen that piggyback on their content and siphon off value — including a relationship with readers — that would otherwise go to the publisher. In the early days of Flipboard, the company ran into some significant criticism over its model of building a business around the content of others, but some of that has subsided over the past few years.

Flipboard’s response to these criticisms is to argue that it is a partner for publishers — some of whom may not have a presence (or at least not a very good one) on mobile devices like tablets — and that it allows them to reach readers they may not otherwise reach, and then convert them into paying customers. Flipboard also works with some publishers to share revenue from ads inserted in their content, which the company argues is similar to a magazine model.

That said, however, some publishers seem to be growing increasingly restless with the Flipboard model, and want to maintain control over monetizing their content (TPM sells access to its full RSS feeds through its premium TPMPrime service). While Flipboard may be having some success with its reader-curated magazine features, those aren’t going to be quite as appealing if the number of publishers who make their content available starts to dwindle.

31 Responses to “Are Flipboard and Currents marketing partners or scams that take advantage of publishers?”

  1. Vernon Niven

    The Guardian’s deputy editor, Katherine Viner, recently said this about the impact of digital on media:

    “In fact, digital is a huge conceptual change, a sociological change, a cluster bomb blowing apart who we are and how our world is ordered, how we see ourselves, how we live. It’s a change we’re in the middle of, so close up that sometimes it’s hard to see. But it is deeply profound and it is happening at an almost unbelievable speed.”

    This isn’t a story about new software tools scamming publishers. It’s about a profound change that’s been going on for decades… over who controls the media we all see and ultimately consume.

    Over the past century, control over media has migrated away from the supply side (authors > publishers > distributors) to the demand side (portals > search engines > aggregators > social media – and now, personal media platforms like Flipboard).

    ~90 percent of this shift happened in the past 20 years. The rate of change is accelerating.

    Flipboard and Currents are just the latest answers to the long-standing question: how do I find the most valuable information… for me… right now?

    If publishers are smart, they will take new technology more seriously and focus more time and energy on preparing for the next wave.

    And that wave is on its way, right now.

    For example, how many publishers can say they understand the strategic importance of the following VC-backed technologies: latent search, semantic web, ambient intelligence, the internet of things and big data?

    These new technologies are poised to change how information gets from media creators to consumers, yet again. If they work as promised, today’s most “threatening” technologies – social media, personal media aggregation and search engines – will be replaced by serendipitous discovery of content: that is, I will get my media delivered to me when I need it… without even trying. Even more efficient!

    Don’t believe me? Have you seen Google Now?

    The lessons of recent history seem clear: Publishers need to embrace and invest in the new technologies that threaten their business model, not fight them.

    Today, innovation cycles are shortening. Disruptive changes to media distribution are happening every 3-4 years now. This is within the range of most strategic plans, right?

  2. Ranjan Roy

    I’m a longtime reader and huge fan of the work TPM has done over the year, and understand the importance of its survival (the Gonzalez Attorney General and Duke Cunningham scandals were incredible fourth estate work).

    However, I think calling Flipboard a scam is misguided. They’re simply a distribution platform, and a publisher has the right to avoid accessing their audience, but they shouldn’t complain about it. That’s the business model Flipboard pursues and most publishers seem happy. It’s similar to the argument that Spotify hurts musicians, while in reality, they’ve made me pay for music for the first time in years.

    People pay for platforms that help us sort through the overload of content out there and easily access it everywhere. The price of a newspaper wasn’t based on the quality of the content, it was based on the constraining factor of a distribution monopoly, and resulting artificial scarcity. Publishers have to understand that and whoever controls distribution controls price. For too long, publishers have only focused on the content, used generic distribution strategies, and screamed bloody murder when prices fell from their previous artificial heights. It’s why sites like Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Business Insider that get the power of a strong CMS and digital distribution strategy can look at a Flipboard as a potential additional source of traffic but not a make-or-break channel.

    Solve for distribution and suddenly that content will be golden.

    **Again, a huge fan of TPM but I can’t buy the argument about ‘the relationship with readers’. They’ve had an incredible commenting base, I went to the site for years, yet I get served honestly some of the worst ads of any site I visit. Go look at the bottom of an article page and ask, is this really a valued relationship with readers?

  3. Roman Karachinsky

    I’m the CEO of News360, also a popular news aggregator and TPM also pulled their full-text feed from us for the same reasons.

    I think that it’s not a question of whether aggregators can bring new readers – they can, and if structured well that can open up opportunities for publishers (think of it like apps & the app store – done right and plugged into the right ecosystem, it does wonders for discovery). But aggregators, especially those who provide discovery mechanisms, need to satisfy a few key requirements to keep the publisher’s monetization model intact and the ecosystem healthy:

    1. Impartiality on who gets the benefit of discovery – the challenge with feed-based aggregators is that they use human editors to decide who is more visible in the system when you go to add a new feed. This creates a natural establishment bias where recognizable brands are featured higher than emerging or niche creators, regardless of content quality. To overcome this very issue, we built our service around complex personalization tech – we want to function like a search engine that recognizes quality and relevance of content that’s tailored to a specific user without relying solely on brand recognition.

    2. A straightforward way to monetize as well as directly engage the audience – either traffic direct to the publisher’s site, or a way for them to advertise in the aggregator without having to sell ads themselves in the aggregator’s format. It has to be easy – having to have your own sales team to monetize the aggregator again shuts off anyone but the top-tier mainstream publishers. Same thing with the ability to subscribe and push information to the user – there has to be a layer of accessibility to the creator, since that audience drives the content and editorial directions.

    I feel like the problem right now is that nobody really satisfies those two requirements – everything is still around human, brand-focused curation, and most aggregators completely shut off the publishers from the audiences. The top-tier publishers are able to get somewhat preferential treatment on the audience and maybe even sell the ads, but it’s not a sustainable model or user experience without the long tail.

    That said, I still believe that pulling out from aggregators is a mistake – they can provide that awesome native, long-form reading discovery experience that you just can’t get when browsing twitter on a phone, and I feel like we’re starting to solve the monetization/discovery issues right now. There is no value in not being a part of that.

  4. Hi Mathew,

    As a long time reader of web comics I see it as indicative that most sites have not yet learnt how to distribute their content via RSS, Currents, Flipboard, etc correctly with the same level of quality that they do on their websites.

    Keep in mind that only just now are websites transitioning to mobile responsive design, never mind mobile friendly. ie: sites that scale the page from traditional desktop all the way down to mobile phones.

    They do have a legitimate concern that they are unable to ensure their revenue streams are not disrupted or siphoned from

    Kind regards

  5. Nothing wrong with paywalls if you can make them work.

    When people go into a petrol station to fill up do they then expect
    to drive off and not pay? No.

    So, why should digital content be free.


    • slateone –

      Why should digital content be free?

      Let me count the reasons…

      Reason #1: The market says your content isn’t worth the price you’re asking for it. Not all of it, anyway.

      We just aren’t buying what you’re selling online.

      I am not knocking the importance of editors and publishers (no need to argue value to society w/ me), but let’s be real:

      Only editors and publishers believe their entire online issue is worth paying an entire issue’s subscription for, any more.

      Your price per issue (or per month) just isn’t close to the value that we, your readers, place on your content in the hyper-competitive media world of today.

      The reason: all of us are being trained by today’s abundant supply of quality digital content to be incredibly discerning readers. As a result, we only care about a small portion of your content.

      Even an online publisher’s most loyal subscribers would agree that perhaps one or two of the articles published each day/issue are very good. The rest? meh. Some are horrible.

      Why should we pay for all of your content, if all we care about is 1-2 articles?

      Which brings me to the second reason digital content isn’t at all like gasoline:

      Reason #2: The digital media industry produces wayyy too much product.

      There is more *high-quality* content published online every week about a given topic than anyone who cares about that topic could ever consume. Google search tells all…

      Even if you strip-out all of the junk, we’d still be overwhelmed on most topics.

      The oversupply problem only gets worse every day, because millions of bloggers are joining-in (and some are quite good).

      In contrast, the gasoline industry carefully matches supply to meet demand – no more, no less.

      This over supply problem is why…

      Reason #3: Media filtering, aggregation and curation have become “really important problems” for the online media consumer.

      Filtering the “fire hose” is arguably the most important challenge for digital media consumers today.

      And it’s the media industry’s fault!

      Because there is an oversupply of good content online, finding the best stuff is consuming more and more of our “reading time”.

      I am literally being forced by an over-supplied market (that’s you, publishers) to become a great curator first, and an avid reader second. I HAVE to focus on being an efficient curator, because I don’t want to waste so much of my limited media time… looking for stuff to read!

      So, if there’s a more efficient way for me to find and read the best articles for my taste – all in one sitting – then I am doing that!

      And if it’s free or ad-supported? well, game over. I’ll do THAT.

      Over-publishing is forcing your market to use a tool like Flipboard or Currents… to save time finding the good stuff.

      Publishers who hate the new aggregators/curators are their own worst enemy in this regard.

      So… before publishers complain further about curation/aggregation platforms “stealing value”, perhaps they should look in the mirror and ask: with such an oversupply of content online, why aren’t we producing LESS?

      I believe the points above explain why so many avid digital media consumers are flocking to personal curation / aggregation platforms like Flipboard, Tumblr, Pinterest and Currents.

      I also believe that the majority of online consumers/readers will eventually rely on Flipboard/Currents-type technology to begin their daily media ritual.

      Because it’s in their best interest! And it’s free! Duh.

      So what can an online publisher do?

      In my totally biased opinion, online publishers will either have to learn how to thrive in the over-supplied personally-curated/aggregated world that is arriving right now, or they will need to choose from two alternative, difficult paths:

      1. stop producing so much content… and hope competitors & bloggers follow suit; or,

      2. fight your readers’ natural motivation to save time… and probably suffer the fate of newspapers.

      I am certain there will be examples of publishers who successfully buck these trends with paywalls, etc. But fighting natural reader behavior doesn’t sound like a smart strategy for most.

      Full disclosure: I am a minor, non-active angel investor in Flipboard (by way of an acquisition). So, feel free to question my motives (that’s fair). But please also consider the above points on their own merits.

      Have a great week!

    • “So, why should digital content be free”

      Because there are 18 bazillon free alternatives.

      I understand your point and the economics – but I am also pointing out the economic realities.

      News generation/dissemination (really crypto opinion mongering and crypto political push polling in the bad old MSM days…) has gone from a high entry cost oligopoly to an ultra low entry cost perfectly competitive market.

      And the archons of the old corrupt (illusory) order are dying and are pissed about it.

      Too bad, so sad.

      Political opinions are like *ssholes, everybody has one.

      So it is hard to make money selling them.

  6. Focus group of one: I use both Twitter and Flipboard to keep me up to date on news and relevant business info. But I increasingly use Flipboard because it’s a much easier and more enjoyable way to filter through the mountain of content that comes my way every day. That means that publishers who drop out of Flipboard will be that much less likely to get my eyeballs. Demand a better deal from Flipboard, by all means. They need you as much as you need them. But I would be very careful hitching my wagon to a platform that simply doesn’t work as well for your audience.

  7. Ole Petter Pedersen

    No point in a reader if he or she does not generate financial income. Not in ordinary news organisastions, anyway. So other publishers, like Flipboard, who generate their own income based on something you might have published yourself, are taking money away from the people who actually created the quality content in the first place.

    I do not need everyone to read what I publish. But I need my readers to be ready to pay for my writings. Otherwise, I would not be making a living as a journalist.

  8. Jason Perse

    Josh, really? Success is all about traffic to your site? So you can show people your lame Google ads that you no doubt make pennies on. Come on.

    I gave up using your site on an iPad or iPhone because you don’t have a mobile website. Where do you think people want to read your content? On the train, on the bus, at the airport, in bed.. yes, all of those. I used to read those on Flipboard, and at work on my PC. But I guess you’re all about banner ads these days and paying for news – good luck on that.

    Oh well, off to Politico… they have an iPad app by the way, get used to it.

    • Josh Marshall

      Truly comical. Actually we make substantial revenue of our 3rd party advertising system. And we have over 25% of our audience on mobile. So while our mobile optimizations may not be perfect, people seem to enjoy them. But the best part of your comment is this “But I guess you’re all about banner ads these days and paying for news – good luck on that.”

      All about ‘paying of news’. That’s brilliant. Yes, our news strategy is to stay in business and meet payroll. A daring approach but we’re sticking with it. You seem to imagine that a company getting revenue is somehow a strategy around which some publications can be based and others not. Publications need revenue to run. That’s the point. The fact that you don’t recognize this means you’re simply not in a position to even discuss this issue.

  9. Thanks for the comment, Josh. I can see your point about giving up a lot of the value in that relationship with readers to Flipboard — but aren’t you giving up a lot in terms of reach by not using a broad platform like that?

    • 1) “Reach” doesn’t bring in any revenue by itself.

      2) While Current provide metrics about its usage to each publisher (via Google Analytics), Flipboard provides nothing. Except for their top partners, publishers have no clue what kind of traffic they may get on their platform.

      You may put your faith in promoting your brand to a new audience, but as a publisher, what you can measure as a benefit is exactly zero.

  10. Josh Marshall

    Most of the comments here avoid the basic point ‘gaining new readers’ doesn’t count for much to the publisher if the publisher has zero relationship with the reader and derives no revenue from the audience. Calling this old media thinking just means you don’t get actual publishing economics. We’re not afraid of crowd-sourced information. We’re deeply involved with the top social media sites. We have a major presence on Facebook and Twitter.

    You may not have the bandwidth to visit every site. I don’t either. But again, your visits to intermediaries that scoop up all the value and relationship for themselves doesn’t add anything for us as publishers. Twitter provides the same aggregating, skimming, browsing function but provides a very different pay off for publishers since readers visit the site’s in question.

    This is the model we’re pursuing and it’s working very well for us in audience and revenue terms. You can’t eat brand awareness or pay salaries with it. Real businesses, as opposed to places that are floating on VC money, know this.

    • raadore

      Hi Josh,
      I agree with you but I personally feel that for over 100 years newspaper and magazine publishers had relationships with their readers via subscriptions and to my knowledge had done very little if nothing with those relationships as it pertains to the reader. They simply sold those relationships to the advertisers. Flipboard, Facebook, Google are doing the same thing except they are also consistently improving their product to make it better for their reader based on the data they collect. Flipboard two years ago was not the same Flipboard today. The only improvement the newspapers have done is make the Sunday edition a recycling fanatic’s best friend.

      • “… [T]o my knowledge [newspaper and magazine publishers] had done very little if [any]thing with those relationships as it pertains to the reader.” Not following you; you seem to be saying that, because you’re ignorant of all that they’ve done in that regard, that means they didn’t? “The only improvement the newspapers have done is make the Sunday edition a recycling fanatic’s best friend.” Having spent several decades in print publishing, I’ve never seen a magazine or newspaper that didn’t constantly update its content as time passed to meet changing reader preferences. So, you made two assertions, both erroneous; it’s like you were making pronouncements off the top of your head, and because it was your head you think they must be true.

  11. Nate the great

    I don’t see why this issue is still being debated. Whatever argument there might be between publishers and tech companies was won by the tech companies long ago.

    Today’s question about Flipboard would have been equally invalid if asked about Google Reader 5 years ago. Even in 2008 the tech companies had already won.

  12. There’s no debate in my mind as a daily Flipboard user. I use it because it leverages my relationships with people that I have shared interests with. I have my preferred magazines which I still subscribe to.

    I would suggest that traditional publishers see crowd sourced information as a threat, rather than welcoming a resource that could bring them more readers. That’s the sort of business as usual thinking that is seeing more and more newspaper and other publishers in decline. IMHO:)

  13. Chris McCoy

    Original commentary on this over at:

    Thoughts haven’t changed.

    Surprised Flipboard team hasn’t innovated on a revenue model for its publisher partners (or just feeds).

    With most things, devil in the details. In this case, each view on Flipboard, YourSports, Feedly, etc. counts as a page view so it helps with their metrics.

    Problem is we’re on the downward slope of Peak Page View.

    In reality, publishers should get be getting similar access to user social data as the “tech middlemen” platforms are natively acquiring.

    Their ads could get better. Their content could be personalized and more localized. Etc.

    Until then it’s kind of a race to the bottom.

    * I’m working on a social meets publishing play at YourSports that so far is getting incredible reception from the sports publishing universe. Our approach very different than Flipboard and co.

    • @Chris McCoy

      I think you have totally hit the nail on the head when you say: Surprised Flipboard team hasn’t innovated on a revenue model for its publisher partners (or just feeds).

      I think if they had done something about this aspect instead of coming up with meaningless metrics – flips, for example, we wouldn’t be having a discussion. The fact remains that in order to have influence you do need to have a business and in order to have a business in this new distributed media ecosystem, content creators and content aggregators need to figure out a way where everyone can make some (if not a lot) of money.

      Someday Silicon Valley startups wouldn’t think of revenue as”oh shit, let’s do something about that revenue thing.” #joke.

  14. I have noticed more and more sites killing or at least hobbling their RSS feeds for the very same reason as mentioned in the article.

    Personally, I think this will backfire as most of us do not have the bandwidth to visit each site individually and news aggregation was a great way to quickly filter through the noise to find content relevant to my interests.

    My choice, for the most part, will not be to visit each site, but to drop them as a point of consumption and I think that will be the default behavior for many resulting in less traffic rather than more.

    My advice to publishers…tread lightly, the majority of you simply do not have the traction to dictate a consumption model.

      • While it is true that many — or even most — consumers prefer aggregation, the “Default Behavior” issue might well be simply of a reflection of the nascency of digital publishing. Many publishers (including many of out clients @empirical media) are really in the early stages of building vast expertise on marketing their online content. Ultimately, that investment builds much greater value. As an example: A well marketed Tweet leading to an article monetized via programmatic retargeting can be worth a CPM of $20+ with no cost of sales. This is a 4X over the Flipboard yield and has the benefit of capturing first party data. Bottom line is that Flipboard might well be a bandaid technology for an early industry. Here’s is another example of this: Metacrawler — a search engine that aggregated results from 5 search engines. Great business model and great for consumers who did not like getting vastly different results on Yahoo and Alta Vista. But then “Default Behavior” changed.

    • julien51

      Very good point. I think publishers are in the business of influencing. If you publish anything for anyone to read, it’s because you want to get your point to them. Influence is obviously a factor of both readership (the amount of people who read your stuff) and quality (originality, accuracy… etc). It’s really hard for me to think that anyone’s content and ideas are completely unique at this point. No matter the message you’re trying to send, someone *is* sending the same message. If yours has more difficulty to reach out to me, either because of a paywall or because you don’t provide me (your reader) tools to get the content you publish easily, I will tend to not care much about your message very quickly.

      • raadore

        Hi julien51, “publishers are in the business of influencing” – I think that from the moment newspaper sales have started to dwindle due to the internet we have witnessed the sad truth that is opposite to your thesis and that is: “publishers are in the business of making money”. Your statement is true as it pertains to the power of the written word. I published a local newspaper for a few years as a side business and I couldn’t believe how it influenced people.

        I agree with you that “someone is sending the same message” but unless that message is timely, informative, factual and well told people will not follow it for long. Twitter is extremely timely, I turn to it when I find out something news breaking. I take it also for factual because in 140 characters people will report the facts. But when I want more information and well told I turn to a reporters that I know will wrap everything into a story.

        Two great examples are RadioLab and Thisamericanlife podcasts. There are many science magazines and sites out on the internet and I skim through the RSS feeds to find out what’s new but when I want to spend my time on science I turn to RadioLab because their story telling is superb.

        • But_Anyway

          The New York Times found itself behind the proverbial 8- ball, because the sacrificed themselves on the altar of Google. They’ve since reversed course, but were reeling for a number of years. Up until the mid ’90s, they’re print model had two rev streams – ads and sums. In an effort to build their online traffic they gave the website away for free thinking they would drive more readers to the site and convert them into paid [print] subscribers. This didn’t pan out and they essentially went from two revenue streams to one. They still had paid print subs, but as they navigated the switch to digital – they effectively cut off an entire and not insignificant stream. Since they they put up the pay wall they’ve begun to turn things around. The real point here is that if everybody starts giving away their content – especially through aggregators – revenue drops to the point they can’t produce the compelling original content that helped build their brand in the first place. Essentially everything runs the risk of becoming watered down and homogenized that people will start to turn off completely.