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Mossberg: Flipboard redesigns itself around ‘smart’ digital magazines

Deep personalization is faster and simpler

Flipboard’s new passion picker interface

News and commentary on almost every imaginable subject is abundant online. Websites, apps, social media, and search results combine to create a fire hose of information. But finding a way you like to organize it for easy reading can be pretty hard. That’s especially true if you have a variety of interests and want to see articles and posts from multiple sources, but have it all tailored to you.

Mobile apps like Apple News, SmartNews, Google News, and others may be your favorite news aggregators. But I have always been partial to Flipboard, the beautiful and clever app which started off six years ago as a way to turn social media posts into handsome magazine-like articles on iPads.

Since then, Flipboard has grown to over 100 million monthly active users and spread to the iPhone, Android, and the web. Its sources now include almost anything online, through publisher partnerships and open feeds, and, since 2012, its users have been able to create their own manually curated magazines using simple tools.

Now, Flipboard is launching a major redesign, version 4.0, which is built around “smart,” magazines on topics you choose, tailored using highly granular choices of subjects or sources, and automatically updated as relevant new content is published online.

The main interface of the app, formerly a company-supplied mashup of stories on many topics, is now a swipeable, customizable gallery mainly populated with your own smart magazines. Each magazine is represented by a nearly full-screen cover photo that changes as news happens. You can place up to nine such magazines here. If you have more, they live in a tile grid elsewhere in the app.

Also in this carousel: a “Passion Picker” configuration screen that lets you make a new smart magazine quickly and easily. It’s the tool that makes the new Flipboard possible.

I’ve been testing a prerelease version of Flipboard 4.0, which is being released today for the iPhone, Android and the web, and I think it’s a welcome improvement to an already-strong product. I ran into a couple of issues, but mostly I enjoyed using this new Flipboard. I can recommend it to anybody looking for a quick but smart way to organize online news, commentary, and analysis — and view it in a handsome layout. Even the full-screen ads are attractive. (An iPad version is likely in a few months, the company says.)

Smart and passionate

Each smart magazine is built in a much more granular way than before. For instance, in the old Flipboard, if you set up a “topic” like technology, you saw essentially the same content as everyone else who chose that topic. Now, when you set up your smart magazine on technology (or any other topic) using the passion picker, you’re prompted to either choose or opt out of a long list of subtopics, like consumer tech, UX design, gear and gadgets, hacking, artificial intelligence, enterprise tech, and even specific companies and products. You can look for other subtopics by typing them into a search box.

Should you want a politics magazine, Flipboard offers you not only the usual topics, like President Trump, Congress, and the two major parties, but a “conservative POV,” a “liberal POV,” and to burst your bubble, something called “Left, Right and Center,” which is designed to expose you to various points of view. When I added that one, I began to see political stories originating in sources from the left-leaning Guardian to the right-leaning Fox News, and everything in between.

A final, more personal example: the old Flipboard let me set up a topic called “New England Patriots” with no further customization. The new version offered me a choice of including subtopics such as every major player, the coach, the owner, and the Super Bowl. (They won that, in an amazing comeback, a few days ago.)

You can easily return to the picker from within any smart magazine, so you can refine it. The company compares the process to setting up a smart, personalized playlist in a music app.

Once you’ve set up a smart magazine, Flipboard keeps it fresh with a combination of machine learning, human curation, related RSS feeds and articles shared by its community of users, and tweets from a company-selected list of topic-specific “thought leaders” on Twitter.

You can also create a smart magazine that draws only on specific sources, such as RSS feeds, other magazines created by Flipboard, and specific Twitter handles or hashtags.

If you’re not ready to create a smart magazine, Flipboard has carried over some company-created ones, including the algorithmic Cover Stories and Daily Edition, which is a staff-curated top news report.

A few drawbacks

While I found that Flipboard was a good source of fresh stories in topics I followed, it didn’t always have the very newest news, in the minutes after it happened. The company concedes this and says its metaphor isn’t something like Twitter or a 24-hour cable channel, but a magazine which is newsy but also personalized and thoughtful.

In my tests, I found some other issues. The biggest one was that the carousel of magazines, which is limited to nine, didn’t scroll as quickly or fluidly as it should have on my iPhone. The company says it plans a post-release update to improve performance.

Also, while you can rearrange and swap in or out most of the magazines in your home gallery, Cover Stories is always first and is unmovable and undeletable from home. The company says it plans to change that in a patch soon.

And I found that some topics I expected to find just weren’t available. For instance, when building my music smart magazine, I couldn’t add either Carole King or Paul Simon. Yes, the two had their popular peaks decades ago, but they are among the most famous pop music composers alive today and King is the subject of a popular Broadway musical, still running.

Flipboard said the reason King and Simon were absent is that its algorithms only provide topics and subtopics which attract a fairly large amount of current stories and posts. But, after I raised the issue, King was added. I still can’t find Simon. Hello darkness, my old friend.

Bottom Line

Even if you clear away the issues of fake news or “alternative facts,” just following the news and commentary on topics you care about can be a chore. The new Flipboard makes it easy and satisfying.