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Flipboard's Mike McCue: Web format has 'contaminated' online journalism

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Flipboard, the social magazine app for the iPad, seems to be having a flipping good run.

Last week, the famously design-conscious Apple Inc. named Flipboard its App of the Year. Then Wednesday, Chief Executive Mike McCue joined Twitter's board of directors. On Thursday, Flipboard released its first major update, allowing users to ''magazine-ify" a broader range of online content.

Flipboard can now make pleasant-looking, magazine-like pages from almost any site, including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and thousands of blogs and news outlets. The app is becoming a new kind of reading-friendly, distraction-hostile browser, with the goal -- as McCue said in an interview Monday -- of "making the Web beautiful again."

It's generally agreed that the Web isn't a very good place to read. With constantly changing, amorphous formatting and an invariably ad-choked feel, the Web has never been able to replicate the quiet, unencumbered pleasure of reading in print. The trick, McCue says in the following excerpts, is to marry the best of print's aesthetic and the best of the Web's speed, reach, and mobility.

How can journalism benefit from the tablet? What can it do that the newspaper or the PC can't?

McCue: The problem with journalism on the Web today is that it's being contaminated by the Web form factor. What I mean is, journalists are being pushed to do things like slide shows -- stuff meant to attract page views. Articles themselves are condensed to narrow columns of text across 5, 6, 7 pages, and ads that are really distracting for the reader, so it's not a pleasant experience to 'curl up' with a good website.

Journalism is being pushed into a space where I don't think it should ever go, where it's trying to support the monetization model of the Web by driving page views. So what you have is a drop-off of long-form journalism, because long-form pieces are harder to monetize. And it's also hard to present that longer stuff to the reader because no one wants to wait four seconds for every page to load.

How can the tablet improve on that?

McCue: What the tablet does, for the first time, is let us hit the reset button on the presentation of content to readers.

So now you're getting these newspaper- and magazine-reading apps that do a much better job of showing the content on a full screen, and with nicer, larger advertisements.

The only problem with that is, if you just move your print world to the digital world -- like take Wired magazine and drop it into the tablet -- you lose all the advantages with the Web. There are a lot of problems with the Web, but there are a lot of great things about it, too.

Like what?

McCue: The fact that I can just share any article from anywhere, with anyone -- and have it injected into a social conversation about that.

Let's leverage the power of the Web -- don't get rid of it, but make the Web beautiful again. We need to give the content room to breathe, and give magazine-style advertisements the opportunity to flourish. We want to allow people to share all this content across many social networks and drive people to retweet and share even more.

There's also a lot of opportunity to do more interactive news -- that you can touch. To look at maps, and turn models of nuclear power plants in North Korea in three dimensions, stuff like that. 

There's been a speed bump in terms of that stuff with Flash, because Flash isn't supported on these [Apple] platforms. But HTML5 solves a lot of those problems -- you can do 3D graphics and touch-sensitivity with HTML5 -- all on a Web page.

You've hit on a nice way to repackage existing blog posts and stories in a magazine-like format. Big publishers will probably want to be adopting a lot of your design ideas for their own content.  When they do will you still have an advantage?

McCue: The magic of this is that we're combining all these different feeds from all these different places with one simple user interface. From a technical perspective, you can look at us like a new kind of browser -- a feed browser, if you will. 

That's very much needed because if you look at the way magazine apps work, you have to go to the app store and download an application just to read something -- and that just doesn't scale. They all work differently, and nobody's going to go in and for every single publication they read, connect to Facebook and Twitter.

The other thing is, there are the large publishers that have the ability to have their own app and their own presence in the mind of the consumer.  But then there's a whole laundry list of these incredible blogs -- and they don't want to create an app. It's so expensive to build one of those things -- why should they have to do all that themselves when they can just present their content in RSS or on Twitter?

That said, on the Web, we are trying to create some news standards and raise the bar on HTML content. It would be great if more Web pages worked this way in the first place. And it'd be great if we could have an influence on that. 

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-- David Sarno

Photo: Mike McCue, right, and part of Flipboard's team, pictured in June, 2010. Credit: Robert Scoble / Flickr

 
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