“Are operations like Flipboard scams against publishers?”

I followed the link to this article the other day via John Gruber. John Marshall, editor & publisher of Talking Points Memo, has written a piece on the TPM Editor’s Blog called Are operations like Flipboard scams against publishers? My first reaction after reading it was to simply point out that it could be another good candidate for Betteridge’s Law of Headlines. Anyway, the gist of the article is this: TPM’s publisher has decided to remove Talking Points Memo from a series of aggregator sites, such as Flipboard and Google Currents, and the piece serves as further explanation of the reasons behind this decision.

Marshall writes:

That said, I do think these services, as they currently exist are bad for publishers. We give them the entirety of our product – news stories, updates, posts, what-have-you – in exchange for a notional thing called exposure, brand awareness, blah blah blah and in theory or at some point in the future a cut of the ad revenues these services bring in for selling ads on their platforms. The problem is there are no ad revenues that go to the publishers. Where they exist they are literally trivial. The real payoff is supposed to be reach, letting new potential readers know we’re out there. In theory, that’s particularly important for small publishers like TPM who don’t have big budgets for promotional campaigns.

[…]

But say you find TPM on Flipboard, decide it’s great and add it to your viewing routine on Flipboard. Probably you just keep reading us on Flipboard. Clearly you like Flipboard or you wouldn’t be using it. So why would you start visiting TPM? You likely won’t. That may be great for you. It’s definitely great for Flipboard. But is it great for us? Not really. It boosts my ego, I guess. And more people may know about us. But where and how does that turn into our ability to convert that ‘audience’ into a revenue stream that allows us to create our product? I don’t think it does. Or it does in so in such a trivial and unquantifiable way as to be meaningless.

What I don’t understand is why point the finger at Flipboard specifically. Marshall’s objection could also be raised against all RSS feed reader applications. I don’t know you, but usually when I discover a great website and I’d like to stay up-to-date with it, I add it to my feed reader and keep following it there. Some of the websites and weblogs I follow via RSS don’t truncate their feeds, so 99% of the time I don’t visit them directly, it’s just easier and less time-consuming to follow them in my feed reader. If, on the other hand, they display truncated feeds (like Macworld), then I go to the site to read a full article, either through the feed reader’s built-in browser, or by opening the article’s page in a tab in one of the browsers I regularly use.

At the end of the day, I consider Flipboard to be just a very cool feed reader which assembles the feeds in a magazine-like layout to facilitate browsing. My customised Flipboard is largely made of feeds I’ve manually added, plus some general default feeds of automatically aggregated content (the Technology, Design, and Photography sections). The articles aggregated by Flipboard and displayed therein behave exactly like feed items: in many instances I can read a whole article without leaving Flipboard, but some sources don’t display the whole article: Cool Hunting, for example, shows just the first paragraph and a Continue reading… link — that forces you to visit the site via Flipboard’s built-in browser, which counts like a regular visit. I also visit a site directly when Flipboard does a poor job at reformatting that site’s contents (sometimes it happens with image-heavy articles and pieces containing slideshows).

I understand Marshall’s concerns and point of view, but I think that singling out Flipboard is a bit unfair. The same question raised by Gruber in his commentary (“In some ways isn’t Flipboard just a magazine that doesn’t pay for the content it displays?”) could be applied to any feed reader application and news aggregator. I know, one could say that the difference between something like Flipboard and a classic RSS reader is that Flipboard, by serving you a series of automatically aggregated feeds from sources you didn’t even know, induces you to just read those feeds inside Flipboard, avoiding the direct visit to the source. While with a traditional RSS reader, you decide which sources to aggregate and follow. There is no ‘intermediary with reading suggestions’ offering you a series of feeds on a silver platter[1]. The end result isn’t much different in both cases: fewer people visit the sources directly.

Is removing Talking Points Memo from Flipboard, Google Currents and other aggregators an effective strategy to gain back some readers and increase the number of direct visits? I don’t know. I discovered TPM exactly through Flipboard, and now that its contents don’t appear in Flipboard anymore I have added TPM to my feed readers — and since TPM serves truncated feeds, I’ll visit the site when I’m interested in reading an article in full. But I wonder how many people actually pay attention to the sources when they skim through all the articles Flipboard automatically aggregates in some of its sections. I guess that some haven’t even realised TPM is no longer appearing there, and probably won’t bother. They’ll just keep reading whatever content shows up.

Perhaps an acceptable tradeoff would have been to appear in Flipboard (and other similar aggregators) like Cool Hunting does: with truncated articles forcing people to open a browser window to visit TPM’s site and read the pieces in full. This way TPM would have maintained its Flipboard exposure and gained some more direct visits. Just an idea.

 


 

  • 1. Though I remember that RSS feed readers like NetNewsWire and Vienna used to come with a bunch of pre-configured feeds in their default configuration. So does Pulp and probably other feed readers (I only cited the examples I know firsthand).

 

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