In 1885, the owner of the New York Herald newspaper commissioned the science fiction author Jules Verne to write a short story about life in America a thousand years in the future. The result – which finally appeared four years later under the title In the Year 2889 – contained among its predictions a 29th-century newspaper called the Earth Chronicle which ‘instead of being printed... is every morning spoken to subscribers, who, from interesting conversations with reporters, statesmen and scientists, learn the news of the day’. The Earth Chronicle, Verne added, had more than 85 million subscribers.
Minus a few details – a global network of 1,000-miles-an-hour pneumatic transport tubes, the colonisation of the solar system – we seem to have arrived at Vernes’ vision around 900 years early.
Every day, hundreds of millions of people listen to and read the words of millions of others, via an individually customisable communications network that connects more than half the world’s adult population. Yet this new global order has so far proved inhospitable both to the newspaper industry and to most other traditional publishing and media businesses. Eighty-five million people watching a video clip or listening to a song is an everyday occurrence in 2011. But 85 million people subscribing to a newspaper remains pure fiction.
It’s easy enough to understand, then, why such excitement greeted the news in April that the ‘social magazine’ app Flipboard – which launched on Apple’s iPad less than a year previously – had successfully attracted a second round of funding that valued the company at $200 million. Flipboard is the poster child for a new phase in the relationship between digital consumers and the kind of daily content that has, for the past two decades, stubbornly refused to reproduce the printed world’s revenues: an app that combines online culture’s bottomless diversity with the compactness, elegance and advertising opportunities of traditional magazine publishing.
Meet Flipboard on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2vpvEDS00o
At heart, Flipboard is simply an attractive re-imagining of the kind of syndication software that web users have been using for most of the past decade to keep up to date with favourite blogs and websites. Readers submit details of the social networking services they use and the web feeds they follow, and these are converted into a magazine-style experience on the iPad, complete with high-quality fonts, formatting, images, headlines, standfirsts and the eponymous ‘flip’ interface – that allows both easy browsing and full-screen viewing of individual items at the touch of a thumb.
Mike McCue, Flipboard’s CEO and co-founder, described his product in an interview in April as ‘an idea whose time has come’. Traditional online advertising and businesses models for magazines have tended to put business considerations at war with user experience: banner ads are ugly and distracting, while paid-for restrictions on content cut against the grain of a culture of spontaneous sharing, and trends measured in minutes rather than days. Compare this, McCue suggests, to readers of a publication such as Vogue, for whom glossy advertising and the production values of an exclusive product are part of the magazine’s pleasure. Today, McCue argues, the moment has arrived for ‘something totally new’ online that channels ‘the timeless principles of print, the traditions of design typography, the rhythm of storytelling’.
This ‘something totally new’ is also closely connected to the most significant current transition in digital culture: the move from searching to social activity as the heart of the net. In the 1990s, during the worldwide web’s first decade, going online meant, first and foremost, using a search engine to wander through a universe of open information. By the time Google arrived on the scene in 1998, the ability to search and navigate many millions of web pages at will had begun fundamentally to disrupt the way in which the world read, shared and thought about media. No sooner had search conquered the world, however, than a second trend arrived that would catch even Google napping: social media. Thanks to the rise of blogs and increasingly powerful tools for online self-publication, the internet of the early 2000s was a realm packed with authors as well as readers. Blogging almost single-handedly turned “self-publication” from a dirty word in literary circles into a simple fact of digital life.
One of the more intriguing consequences of everyone becoming an author, however, was that everyone soon became an editor, too – and the curatorial skills of friends and trusted figures became an increasingly tempting alternative to search engines. Suddenly, the open web didn’t have all the answers. Information overload and quality control problems were taking their toll, and people were looking for guarantees of relevance, interest and convenience: the kind of guarantees that individual relationships were perfectly placed to deliver.
This was a trend that went hand-in-hand with the explosive growth of websites dedicated to social networking and content sharing. In 2002, US site Friendster introduced the idea that social sites could be destinations in their own right as well as a way of finding old friends. It was a template that took on its definitive form with the launch of Facebook in 2004, a service that by the start of this year boasted more than 600 million members: more people than there had been users of the entire internet in 2002.
"Micro-blogging" in the form of Twitter, launched in 2006, also helped redefine the texture of digital existence into a perpetual present of streamed information. Apple's iPhone (2007) and iPad (2010) then provided templates for the effortless, ubiquitous mobile platforms through which this culture could conquer the world.
Which brings us to the present, and to Flipboard: a service that puts editorial power into the hands of its users while recognising that too much freedom feels like no freedom at all. Its standardised design and context-sensitive formatting are a perfect match for the much-debated “closed” marketplace of Apple’s mobile and tablet devices – where centralised standards are applied to every app released, and the sole vendor is Apple itself – while its integration with the likes of Facebook and Twitter leaves it open to the wonders of the web, as filtered by social recommendations.
Flipboard also presents the world of traditional publishing with a new digital challenge: if the reader is acting as the editor selecting the content, and the design team at Flipboard are the ones bringing this content to life, where does this leave those who have historically made their living from the careful selection and presentation of texts – editors themselves?
Flipboard is not the first to have posed such questions. As early as 2007, a service known as Feeddo – later renamed Feedly – presented a user’s favourite websites and feeds in a curated, magazine-style format – a trick that services such as The Tweeted Times and Paper.li have continued to develop. Going one step further towards print, Hewlett Packard’s online service Tabbloid launched in November 2008, offering users a ‘daily electronic magazine’ that compiled their selection and favourite feeds, and sent it in a printable PDF format directly to their inbox. The style and customisation options were basic, but this was a timely recognition of the enduring appeal of content that can simply be picked up and read from beginning to end.
In November 2009, this trend reached perhaps its logical conclusion with the launch in Berlin of Niiu – a personalised daily newspaper service that, for the same price as a standard German newspaper (€1.80), would deliver to each of its subscribers a 24-page printed paper based on their personal selections from 17 international and German newspapers, plus a range of websites. Custom inkjet printers meant that every single subscriber could receive an individualised print publication seven days a week.
More information on Niiu : www.niiu.de
Niiu may sound like the world’s first editor-free printed newspaper, but the equation is not quite so simple. For a start, Niiu’s readers, like the users of the digital services that preceded and enabled it, are not acting as editors in the conventional sense. Much as with social media, their editorial input lies in selecting which sources and individuals to follow, not in selecting which individual pieces they wish to read. In this sense, the reader’s role is not so much that of an editor as that of a delegator, outsourcing the selection process to others, who themselves are making their selections from other sources. It’s a chain of connections that can consist simply of social memes rippling through the ether, but that often also ends (or begins, depending on your perspective) in the traditionally edited work of a magazine, newspaper or broadcast reporter – or the less traditionally edited work of a professional blogger.
Choosing who gets to edit your information about the world is, of course, exactly what has been going on in the newspaper and magazine businesses for centuries: readers pick publications for their political stance, their tone, their taste, their ethos. In this sense, little has changed. The cardinal relationship within media consumption remains one of trust. It’s just that almost anyone, now, can attempt to win others’ trust in their taste – while that trust may be more ruthlessly predicated on knowing what’s trending, trendy, or just plain amusing than on any other criteria.
What’s an editor to do, short of flinging up the paywalls and hoping to tough it out, Murdoch-style? Flipboard may be in the ascendant, but those hoping to be saved by imitation may be disappointed. Much like other powerful digital platforms, once someone has a (free) copy of Flipboard sitting on their iPad, their need for other such applications is low. It offers a superb means of consuming others’ content – and for others to share in the benefits of the attention their content garners – but the whole point of the service is that it offers a complete, customisable package.
A better and clearer question is, perhaps, what ought an editor not to do? With Flipboard and a host of other elegant apps in hand, most iPad users aren’t going to look twice at a magazine app that simply reproduces print content onscreen. Good design starts from first principles, and few things look more stale or inert on a 21st-century device than the static pages of a 20th-century publishing format.
In this sense, many editorial ambitions may be better off being scaled back to concentrate on what can uniquely be offered to readers: distinctive content, a trustworthy brand, an elegant physical edition, and open partnerships with leading digital services.
One service broadly fitting that description launched in early 2011, thanks to a collaboration between the The New York Times R&D Lab and the URL shortening service bit.ly. Called News.me, it is – like Flipboard – an iPad app with an attractive, magazine-style interface. Unlike Flipboard, however, News.me charges its users $0.99 per week (or $34.99 a year) in exchange for curation of their social media stream, promising to display only ‘the most interesting links that people you follow on Twitter have recently shared’.
News.me is a bold experiment in attempting to monetise the combination of curation, quality and convenience. And whether it fails or succeeds, it is becoming increasingly clear that a mature digital world of smartphones, tablets and social media is not a purely ‘open’ place any more than media are likely to entirely abandon all forms of print for pixels. Rather, many open and closed systems are flourishing in parallel, and vying to win the limited attention and trust of consumers.
There is little place in this new environment for a soggy middle ground of publications with neither the virtues of print nor the ability to meet digital expectations. And this undoubtedly means a leaner (if more nervous) business all round. The skills of a good editor – discernment, selection, synopsis, presentation, evaluation – remain at more of a premium than ever. The problem is convincing an audience to value these: something that it increasingly seems can only happen either within a well-defined niche, or as part of a constantly shifting network of recommendations, connections and commentaries.
The danger here is narcissism on one side and irrelevance on the other. Many old media colossuses will tumble, or already have. The potential rewards for those able to stay close enough to their audience, however, are substantial. The fantasy of Verne’s daily conversation between 85 million loyal subscribers and the experts they trust to interpret their world may yet have its day.
Tom Chatfield is an author, former editor and consultant. His second book, on digital ideas, is out this year. He tweets at @TomChatfield and blogs at tomchatfield.net
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