Is Flipboard a partner or a competitor for publishers and content creators? Yes

Flipboard has always had a somewhat double-edged relationship with the publishers who create the bulk of the content that flows through its apps: it theoretically gets those content creators a larger audience, and in some cases it does revenue-sharing advertising deals with them, but it also keeps a lot of the benefit for itself. That tension between Flipboard’s interests and the interests of content companies or media outlets was highlighted again on Tuesday, with the news that the company has launched a web version of its platform, which allows Flipboard content to be viewed through any web browser.
In the beginning, Flipboard offered publishers what seemed like a sweet deal: a magazine-style app that would allow their content to look great on an iPad or other mobile device, which saved them the cost and hassle of developing their own apps and/or offered a possible alternative to them, a special place where their content could find a new audience, and potentially even be monetized. But to some extent, the web launch — and the recent introduction of user-curated magazines — seem like a move away from that model.
But even before the web announcement or the curation news, there was already a very real Faustian bargain at the heart of what Flipboard was offering, one that caused at least a few providers to hold the company at arms length (or to require that the service provide what it calls a “web view” of their content instead of publishing it inside the app), and even led several publishers — including the New Yorker and Wired — to quit the service after trying it out, because they wanted to retain more control over their content.
Flipboard-2-Magazine-user created mags

A partner for media, but also a disruptor

In a sense, the magazine app has always been based on the same fundamental arrangement that Google News (s goog) and other aggregators have made with content creators, in some cases against their will — which is to say that while the service consists entirely of content lifted from publishers, it is worth it because the added exposure drives more readers to that content. Does that deal justify the price content creators ultimately pay? Publishers like Rupert Murdoch have argued strenuously that it isn’t, while others in Belgium and elsewhere have sued Google to get it to pay for the privilege of using their material.
Media consultant Paul Armstrong — who also runs the Twitter account called @TheMediaIsDying — argued in a piece for paidContent earlier this year that Flipboard is a “giant iceberg lurking in the path of the media.” His thesis was based in large part on the launch of the user-curated magazine feature that allows anyone to create their own magazines, using either their own content or content from outlets who publish through the platform. As Armstrong described it:

“A reminder: You’ve just received yet another huge set of competitors vying for the same eyeballs you covet. If history is anything to go by, most people already feel quite satisfied parsing news (á la Google News) so this shift should be sending chills of terror through professional curators like editors and writers.”

But the user-curated publishing that happens on Flipboard now — with more than two million magazines created, according to the company — isn’t just disruptive to traditional media companies because their content can be turned into user-generated magazines. It’s also disruptive because it allows advertisers and brands themselves to become publishers, to create their own content and to publish their own magazines, which could reduce (if not replace) their desire to embed ads inside the content from other publishers.

An end run around publishers?

And now that all of this content is becoming available through a web browser, Flipboard has executed what appears to be a giant end-run around the traditional media companies that provide the bulk of its content. After offering a special, mobile-only app model that took advantage of the publishers’ desire to exploit a new platform — namely, the iPad — to reach a new audience (or to reach the same audience in a different way), Flipboard is now a web-based publisher itself, similar to Google or Yahoo News.
What some content publishers might start wondering is why they should allow Flipboard to publish their content on the web and put ads in it when they can already do that themselves. In that sense, the company is trying to be a media partner while also being a competitor, just as Twitter is — and that’s a delicate balance to maintain. And with more of the company’s content coming from user-generated content through the curation feature, it’s going to have to try harder to strike (or keep) relationships with existing publishers, who might feel their content is either being overwhelmed or mis-used.
We’ve written a lot about how content works now in the age of the web and the social network, and what Om has called the democratization of distribution — how it inevitably spreads through a host of different channels and services, and reaches users in a bewildering variety of ways. A recent study by Reuters showed that a substantial number of readers don’t even know where the content they are reading comes from, because they get it from aggregators and sites that excerpt, or from social sources like Twitter and Facebook.
That’s just the reality of the content business now, and it is something publishers have to come to grips with (that includes GigaOM — and yes, we are a Flipboard partner). And it often means doing business with services that sometimes look like partners and sometimes look like competitors. As for what Flipboard’s end game is, that’s an open question. Will it be happy being a partner, or is it building a media company of its own with other people’s content?
Update: In a phone interview after this post was published, Flipboard CEO Mike McCue said that the majority of the publishers the company works with see both the user-curated magazines and the web launch as positive steps, because they open up new ways for people to see their content. McCue also said that Flipboard hopes to bring its large-format magazine-style ads to the web product as well — which he says can bring in 10 times as much advertising revenue as an article would fetch on a website with regular banner ads.

“We’ve tried to take a very conservative approach, so when you click on the content it takes you right to the publisher’s website — and what we plan to do with publisher permission is to display the content inline in the magazine format, with their ads and their formatting… But we don’t want to force publishers to do anything they don’t want to do — we want to be their partner, so they can decide to participate or not, and we’ll be listening closely to their feedback.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Mathias