Are Apps Like Flipboard the Future of Media?

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