Flipboard's Josh Quittner: 'The creator is still more valuable than the curator'
Now in its second generation, social magazine app Flipboard claims to have found a way to ‘monetise’ the sharing of journalism – but at what cost? The Drum’s Cameron Clarke speaks to the company’s editorial director Josh Quittner to find out if Flipboard is part of the solution or the problem for under pressure publishers.
For its users, Flipboard 2.0 is simply a worthy advancement of an already admirable mobile app. For publishers, it represents a conundrum: is Flipboard an opportunity or a threat?
Josh Quittner does not sound like a threat; in fact, Flipboard’s editorial director is positively disarming. “I love journalism above all,” he says on the phone from the company’s California HQ. “I think I would’ve been homeless if I hadn’t found journalism.”
Quittner spent 25 years as a journalist at US magazine empire Time Inc before leaving to join the promising but considerably more modest start-up Flipboard in 2011. His love affair with journalism did not always run smoothly. In 2007, he found out just how perilous journalism in the digital age can be when the magazine he was running for Time, Business 2.0, went out of business.
“I left traditional media and came to Flipboard precisely because I felt everything we were trying in the traditional world wasn’t working,” Quittner says now.
Flipboard offered hope. Its first incarnation turned static news and feature articles from its users’ favoured websites into striking magazine-style pages which they could literally flip through on an iPad. It was the truest definition to date of a digital magazine and was so simple and elegantly executed that it left you wondering why a mainstream publisher hadn’t thought of it first.
Now Flipboard is taking things a step further. Its latest version, Flipboard 2.0 for iPad, iPhone and soon Android, lets users effortlessly create and share their own magazines. And here’s why that’s so valuable: sharing content equals sharing ads. “[Founder] Mike McCue and the team figured out a way to monetise sharing,” Quittner claims. “Sharing without an ad is not such a great thing for the business, right? But when you can take content and share it and the ad travels along with it, that’s a great thing and that’s what our partners are seeing: the more people who look at their content, the more money they make.”
Flipboard’s 100 or so publishing partners include some of the world’s biggest media brands such as The New York Times, The Guardian and Vanity Fair. In exchange for letting Flipboard ‘scrape’ their website content and repackage it in the flippable format, these partners can profit from a sizeable audience (the app has been downloaded 50m times to date) and running full-page glossy magazine style ads within their pages.
Quittner paints Flipboard as “part of the solution” that can help today’s beleaguered journalism industry rebound from its well-documented woes. Others have their doubts. David Carr, the revered New York Times media writer, has pondered whether Flipboard is “a friend or foe”. The Economist’s CEO, Andrew Rashbass, has been more outspoken, describing Flipboard as “problematic” and “a head-on competitor”.
Quittner doesn’t see it. “I didn’t understand the comment when he [Rashbass] made it, quite frankly, and I still don’t understand it now. The Economist is something that should be on Flipboard because it would put it in front of a lot of readers that it doesn’t currently have. People don’t stand around newsstands paging through magazines anymore. If you don’t give it away in some fashion, how are they going to become habituated to it?
“I don’t see us as being competitive with anybody. We’re trying to do something very difficult.”
Quittner believes the publishers that are open to trying new things in digital will be the ones that recover most strongly from the industry’s slump. “A modern publisher now needs to embrace many different kinds of solutions. Any way they can create their content and release it into the wild in exchange for some form of monetisation is a good thing for them to pursue. The smart ones, the modern ones, the ones that are unencumbered by responsibilities to carrying on these old traditions and these old business models, are embracing that and trying many different things.
“I think we’re going through this last awful ugly shakeout period and the publishers that emerge on the other side will have adopted a lot of different ways to make money. I genuinely believe that some of these places will be making more money than they did in their heyday – not less – once they really understand how to capitalise on this stuff.”
Along with publishers, the other people who may feel vulnerable because of Flipboard 2.0 are the journalists themselves. If Flipboard makes magazine editors of all of us, doesn’t that undermine the role of the professional? Quittner’s telling response is perhaps off-message, but true to his journalist roots. “The creator is still more valuable than the curator,” he says.
“I’ll probably get into trouble with some of my curators for saying that, but I absolutely believe it because it’s just a more difficult task to start from scratch, assemble facts in a meaningful narrative, package those facts – that’s a very difficult, time consuming task. The need for that will always be very strong.
“The problem, however, up until recently is there were too many people who were doing that. There’s too much stuff. Curation was a necessary response to that, to separate the wheat from the chaff.”
‘Stuff’ is Flipboard’s lifeblood. Without journalists and writers producing it, the app would not exist. Quittner knows that Flipboard’s relationship with publishers needs to be mutually beneficial, and he urges both sides to work to their strengths. “It’s very difficult to be just a media company; just a company that goes out and creates content. That’s a really hard job. It’s a full-time hard job. You cannot also be a tech company.
“Being a tech company is a crazy hard and competitive job. It takes a room full of the smartest engineers and the most brilliant entrepreneurs in the world to get up every morning and do it right. So I say leave the technology to the technology companies and let us figure it out. Ideally we create a situation that supports you and makes you thrive. Because if you don’t thrive, we don’t survive.”
Josh Quittner's CV
Education Columbia University - Graduate School of Journalism
Career 1982 - reporter, Albuquerque Journal
1986 - correspondent, The Record
1986 - reporter, Newsday
1996 - tech editor, writer, time.com editor and columnist
2002 - editor in chief, Business 2.0
2007 - executive editor, Fortune magazine
2008 - editor at large, Time Inc
2011 - director of digital editorial development, Time Inc
2011 - editorial director, Flipboard