Why Flipboard Has Authors Flipping Out

In media, distribution is king.
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In media, distribution is king.
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Let me speak in defense of the click for a moment.

There's no term I find more puzzling in modern media jargon than "clickbait." A story lives to be told. Writers write for their readers. What does a storyteller long for more than a rapt listener?

Back in the early days of the Web, the click was novel, a brain-busting rush of seemingly endless information. We clicked and clicked and clicked, surfing the Web until we reached the end of the Internet.

Two decades on, the click has become a trick—one some disillusioned scribes played on their readers, who may not have been aware they were involved in a game.

Yes, you can manipulate readers into reading a story that disappoints them—an unoriginal tale ripped from elsewhere, an overblown promise, a heartstring-yanker that may or may not have any relationship to the facts.

What that misses: Just because there are bad stories, and bad storytellers, doesn't mean that good stories don't still deserve to be heard.

It's why we write.

And it's a fundamental dream of the Web, that anyone can write and be heard.

The emptiness of the charge of "clickbait" lies in this: Would you rather live in a world where no one clicked on links? Where no one read online? Where nobody's stories were heard?

The real problem isn't the trickiness of clickiness. The real problem is that it's still far too hard for the right stories to rise out of the noise. The Web has become festooned with links—too many to ever click. We can never reach the end of the Internet now. But the real tragedy is if we stop trying to find it.

The Click Becomes The Flip

One of the pleasures of talking to Mike McCue, the CEO of Flipboard, is that he's a veteran of that early Web.

McCue and I sat down earlier in August at our an event in our ReadWriteMix series to talk about the changes he's seen in the media landscape in the quarter-century since he founded Paper Software, an early technology company which he ended up selling to Netscape, the groundbreaking Web-browser company which paved the way for the Internet's early growth.

A through line in McCue's career is making tools for publishers, from Paper's 3D graphics to Netscape's Netcaster software, which broadcast updates from websites in a way that eerily presaged Twitter, to Tellme, which aimed to build voice commands into the Web, and eventually Flipboard.

Flipboard is known for its news-reading app, which first launched on the iPad in 2010. It actually replaced the click of the Web with a new gesture, the flip, a metaphor borrowed from print magazines. Readers flipped from article to article, from tweet to Facebook update to headline.

For its first three years, Flipboard limited who could tell stories in its app. You could hear from your friends on Twitter and Facebook. Flipboard had a small in-house editorial crew collecting links to big news stories. And Flipboard partnered with large, established publishers to create flippable versions of their writers' work.

That all changed last year, when Flipboard opened up to all comers. Anyone could create a magazine by "flipping" links into a collection. And like a magazine, you could subscribe to these collections.

The effect on Flipboard's business was palpable. Some 7 million Flipboard users turned themselves into magazine makers, creating 10 million magazines as of early August. And the flood of new material drew new readers onto Flipboard: Its user count doubled from 50 million in March 2013 to more than 100 million today.

Flipboard provided those editors with both the tools of creation and a ready audience. And they built on that platform, making it an even better venue for digital magazine makers.

The Audience Is The Network

The moral of this story is the inseparability of tools for storytelling and tools for finding audiences. Flipboard's interface for magazine editors is elegantly designed, but what really makes it appealing are those 100 million mobile users who might get a look at your collection of Jack Russell Terrier photos.

That also explains why Tumblr and YouTube, two very different mediums for storytelling, are so appealing. They combine tools for creating with tools for connection and distribution. Tumblr lets you follow users, a subscription of sorts, and it lets users spread posts through its "reblog" button. YouTube, too, lets you follow creators' channels, an arrangement that has led to a particularly intense and intimate fan culture. But it doesn't hurt that it has more than a billion people's eyeballs on the site.

If the medium is the message, then the audience is the network.

(Full disclosure: ReadWrite's parent company, Say Media, has a stake in this debate. It makes a tool for publishing websites called Tempest, and it sells ads for its own properties like ReadWrite as well as for independent publishers on that platform.)

Speaking of mediums: If you want an example of what happens when you build great storytelling tools but not a great audience, take the cautionary tale of the grandly named Medium, Twitter cofounder Ev Williams' latest startup. People praise its story-writing interface, which is a great advance over the likes of WordPress or Blogger. But it hasn't delivered much in the way of readers, despite promising to feature authors' work in topical collections and, in some cases, pay them.

One notable publication, LadyBits, quit Medium, citing frustration with its changing content-management features and pay scheme. Medium editor-in-chief Evan Hansen wrote:

One thing we learned: Paying for clicks is not automatically a recipe for producing scads of short, thoughtless posts. We picked editors we trusted, and we found, for the most part, they respected the site and reliably delivered high quality writing. We also learned (surprise) that high quality posts do not automatically garner attention and audience commensurate with the effort of producing them. As a result, our payment model failed to support some really terrific contributors.

All click, no bait.

Flipboard has just tiptoed into the same territory as Medium. It's beginning to pay some of its contributors a share of the advertising revenues their magazines generate. In its first three months of operation, Flipboard wrote $1 million in checks to publishers. It's a small start.

YouTube is probably the best example of a service that has balanced building tools for self-expression, generating large audiences, and delivering a payout to the top tier of creators. It helps that it has a virtual lock on online video.

Can Flipboard—or other players—deliver that same trifecta of tools, audience, and money to the mobile world? If you're interested in reading and writing, as I am, you have to root for the companies that are trying to figure this out.

Owen Thomas is the editor-in-chief of ReadWrite. Follow him on Twitter @owenthomas.