Flipboard is expanding its editorial coverage of technology to include a broader selection of curated articles and product recommendations, the company said, which represents a modest step into e-commerce for the news-reading app. Starting today, people who follow “tech” on Flipboard will see recommended stories, videos, books, podcasts, and other products from publishers, generating money for both from affiliate links. The new tech section, which Flipboard says could serve as a model for expanded coverage of other topics, will be available inside Flipboard’s mobile apps, on the web, and through a new daily newsletter.
“It’s not just about the top stories — it’s really about getting a multidimensional look at the industry you work in,” says Mike McCue, Flipboard’s co-founder and CEO. Six in 10 Flipboard users read tech stories, he says, a number that reaches into the “millions.”
The tech section will also include packages of stories put together by Flipboard’s publishing partners, including The Verge, which offers a selection of hardware news in a package called Gadget News. Other editorial packages that are part of Flipboard’s new tech section include “Features,” from TechCrunch and Wirecutter’s “Deals of the Week.”
Flipboard is also introducing a feature that lets users share stories privately with colleagues or friends. Team magazines are designed to let colleagues share articles in a private forum and discuss them together, McCue says.
Flipboard’s simultaneous moves into e-commerce and, uh, enterprise software illustrate the degree to which a company born to aggregate the web has found itself outmatched by larger aggregators. When it launched in 2010, Flipboard was one of a handful of killer apps for the original iPad. Its elegant design turned RSS feeds into beautiful, personalized digital magazines, drawing millions of users and more than $200 million in venture capital.
But Facebook, not Flipboard, would go on to become the decade’s default portal for news and information. More recently, Apple News and the Google feed have taken advantage of their massive installation bases to emerge as fast-growing traffic sources for publishers.
Flipboard is betting that it can stand out by placing more emphasis on human curation — something that Facebook and Google have traditionally been loath to do. (Apple News employs human editors.) Visit Flipboard’s tech section on the web now, and you’ll find a list of the top stories of the moment, updated 24/7, McCue says. The center section is reserved for a personalized list of stories based on other interests you have shared with Flipboard, which are generated algorithmically. “We think that’s the only way to do it,” McCue says. “Pure human curating doesn’t scale.”
I’m skeptical. Individual publications develop a unique editorial sensibility based on which stories they cover and the voices they use to cover them. Flipboard, like other aggregators, is designed to be an empty vessel for other people’s ideas. That dramatically limits the value it can provide because people can find a collection of other people’s ideas in lots of places — places that, like Facebook, they’re checking more frequently than Flipboard. Even the most meticulously manicured list of the day’s top stories will have trouble standing out in that environment.
As for team magazines, I suspect that feature will also struggle to stand out. People share links via messaging apps — texting, email, Slack — where the behavior comes naturally. The amount of friction involved in getting all your colleagues to download Flipboard and use it as their default place to share industry news is high, and without a clear benefit to the user.
Flipboard says it has more than 100 million users. But more than 500 million have downloaded it on Android alone, suggesting that the company has had trouble retaining its user base in the face of aggressive competition. I’m sympathetic. Few businesses are as reliably brutal as the media industry. But simply hiring more human editors is a curious strategy for standing out. If you were truly serious about curation, you wouldn’t build a better aggregator. You’d start a publication.