Flipboard moves to the web with plans to host some news publishers' content

Reading The News

Flipboard came to prominence as a news-reading app for tablets and smartphones, attracting more than 50 million monthly active readers by the end of 2014.

Now it’s launching a fully-fledged website version where people will be able to browse their feeds of news and social updates. What’s more, Flipboard will also be hosting some publishers’ articles and splitting the advertising revenues with them.

“We’re moving Flipboard to the web. A lot of people think of Flipboard as an app, but Flipboard is really an overall service: a curation network that people are using to follow their interests, and curate their interests,” says chief executive Mike McCue, during a pre-launch demo of the new site.

“We want to make Flipboard more universally acceptable to people by moving it to the web. And also to help people who have gone through the process of personalising their Flipboard to take advantage of that when sitting at their desktop.”

The new website is a big move for Flipboard: besides giving its users another way to read, it also smashes down the walled garden around its apps, and makes the service part of the open web.

That’s particularly important for two Flipboard features in particular: “magazines”, which were introduced to its apps in March 2013, and “topics”, which launched in October 2014.

The first enables Flipboard users to curate their own digital magazines on any themes they like, with other users able to follow them. More than 15m of them have been created. Topics, meanwhile, enables people to follow feeds of articles about tens of thousands of subjects: from food and football to beekeeping, virtual reality or Taylor Swift.

Flipboard is taking all these magazines and topics from its closed apps to the open web: whether curated by humans or algorithms, its collections of articles will be findable within search engines and much more shareable on social networks. As examples, here are the magazines I created for drones, 3D printing and virtual reality to test the new features.

In short, as a website with a deep, long tail of magazines and topics, Flipboard could now be attracting a lot more viewers, showing a lot more ads to those people, and thus making a lot more money.

Yet this content will also now be more obviously in direct competition with the websites of the news publishers whose stories are shared (or “flipped”) on Flipboard. Which is one reason why the company wants to persuade more of those publishers to let Flipboard host their content, rather than just linking to it.

Also key to that is the slick nature of Flipboard’s new website, which swaps the page-flipping interface of the app for a vertical feed of stories for users to scroll through, with images to the fore.

‘This is something art directors do...’

Editorial purists look away now: McCue says Flipboard’s new site is doing the job of an art director from a traditional print magazine in the way it matches text-box colours to their accompanying images, and in its placement of headlines within large photos to ensure they don’t obscure key details.

“This is something art directors do on a regular basis in print. We’re doing it through an algorithm, and it works really, really well. We’ve created some really great technology in terms of how to integrate different colours, type sizes and fonts to make it feel more magazine-like.”

One thing missing from the demo was advertising, but ads will certainly be a presence on Flipboard’s new website, as they are within its apps.

“Advertising will play a role here, just like it does on Flipboard, but they will continue to be beautiful magazine-like ads that feel like a natural part of the experience – like full-page ads you find in a magazine,” says McCue.

Irked art directors aside, what will news publishers make of Flipboard’s new site? Since its launch, Flipboard has divided opinion within the publishing industry between people who embrace its aggregation model, and people who distrust it.

In fact, sometimes it’s divided opinion within media companies, for example when The Economist’s digital team struck a distribution deal with Flipboard shortly before the company’s chief executive criticised it as “a head-on competitor” and “problematic”.

The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Lonely Planet and (disclosure) the Guardian are among the publishers that have partnered with Flipboard, including experimenting with reformatting their articles and sharing ad revenues.

“Our strategy from the very beginning has been to do all of this in partnership with publishers: to enable them to create content and have that content find its maximum audience around the world,” says McCue.

“We want to be a distribution vehicle for our publishing partners, and make their content look and feel great, and load really fast, particularly on mobile devices. We do a lot of reformatting of content with our publishers’ help, and we’re able to sell these beautiful magazine-like ads. They make a lot more from those ads than from banner ads.”

It’s a valid question to wonder whether some of those publishers who’ve partnered with Flipboard felt comfortable doing so because it was an app – a separate digital space on tablets and smartphones – rather than another website.

There’s a view that the fragmentation (or disaggregation) of news publishing is inevitable, and that publishers should be biting the hand off clever technology companies willing to share the profits from aggregating their stories in a way that benefits readers.

The opposing view – this piece on Talking Points Memo sums it up – holds that companies like Flipboard are bad for publishers: parasitical businesses whose promises of eyeballs and exposure mask a business model that will ultimately only pay off for the aggregator.

In truth, most news publishers sit somewhere in the middle, and their experiments with Flipboard and similar services are steps towards understanding which of the above theories holds more water. Flipboard’s new website may sharpen their thinking on this score.

“We are sensitive to making sure that we do this in a way that publishers are happy and excited about,” says McCue, showing how in most cases, clicking on an article on the new website will take users to the original story. “We’re just driving traffic to their websites.”

There’s a but.

“But we do think there’s a path forward that could lead to more beautiful content presentation, that’s faster and generates more revenue for the publishers. We’re experimenting with a few publishers where we’ll render their content on the web too,” says McCue.

‘We’re experimenting with a few publishers...’

He shows a demonstration: a National Geographic article about Mexican mangroves with a fast-loading gallery of photographs.

“For something like National Geographic, on the web we’re going to render their content for them in some ways they weren’t able to do before. We think we can improve the state of the art of what’s happening on the web,” he says.

“It loads faster, it looks beautiful, and they could have beautiful full-page ads in here that are way more successful at monetising than a banner ad. So we are experimenting with publishers to enable them to have a better experience.”

If the pitch sounds familiar, it may be because of an article in October 2014 by New York Times media critic David Carr, in which he broke news of Facebook’s negotiations with publishers to host their content – albeit for mobile rather than desktop-web reading.

“One possibility it mentioned was for publishers to simply send pages to Facebook that would live inside the social network’s mobile app and be hosted by its servers; that way, they would load quickly with ads that Facebook sells. The revenue would be shared.

That kind of wholesale transfer of content sends a cold, dark chill down the collective spine of publishers, both traditional and digital insurgents alike. If Facebook’s mobile app hosted publishers’ pages, the relationship with customers, most of the data about what they did and the reading experience would all belong to the platform. Media companies would essentially be serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns.”

Flipboard is nowhere near the 900lb gorilla status of Facebook in this regard, but nevertheless it, too, is angling to host publishers’ content and do a better job than they can – art editors included – of making it look nice, load quickly and make money from ads.

“Really what we’re trying to do is set it up so that people can focus on the content creation and the quality of the content. We can then help with the distribution of that to its maximum audience, help them make it look beautiful on web, phone or tablet, and we can help monetise it at a level that’s much higher, so that it continues to support that content creation,” is the way McCue puts it.

What about funding it themselves? Now that Flipboard has a platform spanning mobile, tablet and the web, as well as the capability to host articles and sell advertising around them, why not take the next step and hire a few journalists, photographers and videographers to produce original content?

Blogging platform Medium is one example of a company moving from a platform to a publisher, with its “verticals” like CuePoint (for music) and Backchannel (for tech). Could Flipboard follow suit?

“We will see how that all plays out,” says McCue. “You could see us partnering with Medium or other original content-authoring tools, and we might do some things that will enable our curators to create more of these magazines. But right now, our focus is on the packaging of this content.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 10th February 2015 18.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010