Veteran Time Inc. journalist Josh Quittner completed his defection from print media by joining Silicon Valley startup Flipboard--the popular social-magazine app for the iPad--this past July. Quittner is Flipboard's first editorial director. Before joining the company, he directed Time Inc.'s digital magazine strategy and ran editorial for Time.com. In the mid-1990s he was the first writer to cover the Internet exclusively for Time. And he's also had stints running editorial for Fortune and Business 2.0. So why leave a namesake publishing conglomerate for an unproven social-media experiment? Anyone familiar with consumer technology knows Flipboard isn't your average bootstrapped venture.
Just a year old, Flipboard's arrival instantly made it clear that the future of media is here. It's social, it streams, and it scales. And this social-reading experience has a sweet look and feel. You can literally "flip" through media content page by page as if you were thumbing through a print magazine or a personal journal--except Flipboard is like a living, breathing publication that changes over time. Content is instantly refreshed and curated by you or your friends via social feeds. No wonder it's become the touch-tablet app to beat. Competitors include Zite, recently scooped up by CNN for an estimated $20 million, and AOL's Editions, which launched in early August.
Social magazines can be personalized according to a reader's interests by pulling in real-time content feeds from sources like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, as well as RSS feeds from a variety of Web sites and publications.
Apple named Flipboard "App of the Year," in late 2010. Time wrangled it into its annual list of Top 50 innovations. To date, the tablet app has seen 550 million monthly "flips" through its content and 3.5 million downloads. Top-tier investors have pumped $60 million into Flipboard. Funders include Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Index Ventures, Insight Venture Partners, and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. To date, some 50 publishing partners have agreed to share content on the snazzy app. And on Friday, USA Today became the first national newspaper to stake a claim there. Recently, the social-media platform began testing out branded advertising with Conde Nast titles like Wired and The New Yorker.
CNET recently sat down with Quittner to talk about how Flipboard is upending the media landscape, what his job as editorial director for is all about, when the iPhone app is coming out, and where Flipboard is headed.
Question: After spending 16 years at one of the world's most-esteemed media properties, why did you decide to exit Time Inc. for a social-news startup?
Quittner: What I'm most fascinated about at this point in my career is: What is a magazine in the context of now? That's what I'm really trying to understand.
For years, magazines followed exactly the same template with the small things at the beginning, you know, the appetizers, and then the salad course, followed by the features, the big juicy things. There were really great reasons why we did that. But those reasons had more to do with the business model: placing ads against reliable franchises and the real constraints of sending things to the printing press. But at Flipboard, we don't have to worry about any of that.
Of course at a deeper level, what really appeals to me is saving what you and I both love. I've been a journalist all my life. I love it passionately. I think if I had not found journalism when I was 23 or 24 years old I'd probably be homeless or something. A lot of us have weird, some may say, eccentric skill sets. I love journalism. I love everything about it. And, this is a way I'm preserving it and creating a sustainable model. And by the way, I think that sustainable model is built almost entirely around advertising.
Flipboard, though, is just one new-media platform--albeit one of the most disruptive and fastest growing. Can Flipboard alone save journalism?
Quittner: You know, Year One to Year One-and-a-Half was all about experimentation. And bringing in really great, high-quality partners who did fantastic work and wanted to experiment with us; and trying to understand the parameters of what they did against what we're able to do. Part of that is just the presentation layer. Is it beautiful? Does it work for people? Does it load fast? Is it easily sharable? Does it form a bridge to the applications that they're building? Does it work in their ecosystem? All of those things we got to experiment with in the first year or so, and now we started to do advertising with Conde Nast. What we're going to do is put on the brakes there and really study it, because what's not needed is another unsustainable advertising model in new media. What is needed is a really smart way of turning advertising from a nuisance into a service. We have a very real chance of being able to do something like that.
Do you think Flipboard's $60.5 million in venture funding has enabled the freedom to explore what works?
Quittner: This is one of the reasons I feel so lucky to have this opportunity to come to this amazing company. Not only is it really well monetized-- Mike McCue [founder and CEO] is one in a zillion--he's done it and done it and done it. It turns out the hardest part of a startup, in my opinion, isn't finding the money, it's finding the through-line, the path to success. And that means you have to do things in order.
In my capacity at Time Inc., I was always saying, "Why don't we do this? Why don't we do that?" I wanted to do everything. And it just seemed so stupid to me that here was an easy way to make money, but it turns out business is a lot harder than that. You have to make the right decisions at the right time. Timing is everything. And so it would be pretty easy for Flipboard to throw open the floodgates and just start selling the ads all over the place. In three or six months we would just have more of the same, and we don't want that.
The amazing thing about Flipboard is it launched when Mike and his team were ready to deliver a fantastic experience. That's what you're going to see when we do the iPhone launch. And that's what you're going to see, too, with advertising, when we've got that figured out. But Mike's very patient and what the money buys you is time. Time to figure it out. You can't rush it. You just have to make sure it works.
Flipboard for the iPhone is going to be much different than the
iPad version, right?
Quittner: Yes. One thing we know is that people use their iPads, in general, and Flipboard, in particular, before breakfast and from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Prime time. People use their iPads at home and they use their laptops and their smartphones the rest of the day. What we hope is the iPhone app we're creating is a product to be used during the rest of the day--it's a very, very different product and with very different constraints and considerations than the iPad.
So, when's that coming out?
Quittner: I think it will be sooner than that. It won't be long now.
Will Flipboard's iPhone app have ads?
Quittner: I'm not sure about the answer to that.
Why is social the right way to discover, consume, and distribute content?
Quittner: One of things that I pushed for at Time Inc. was greater promiscuity. We used to make all our money from one product--the magazine--and then it was the magazine and the Web; and then came the iPhone, the iPad, Android, the Galaxy, the Kindle, and this that and the other thing. Every one of those new platforms arose, and traditional media companies went crazy. They thought, "This is going to cannibalize our product."
Well, in my opinion, the successful media company is going create a situation so that its content can flow in many different places. So long as you can monetize it either via advertising or licensing fees or subscriptions or pay per view, you're set up correctly, and where you once made money from one product, you're going to now make money from 10 or 12 products. Going forward, my belief is that Flipboard is going to be a very powerful revenue stream for these companies: not only will you be able to monetize through us, but also you will be able to use [Flipboard] to bridge to your other kinds of content. So for instance, look at Oprah or Wired or The New Yorker on Flipboard--aside from their regular advertising they are also advertising their iPad apps because it's a way of bringing content to people and getting them engaged in ways that may be difficult in other media.
Are you involved in content partnerships?
Quittner: The publisher chooses the advertising partners. They pick their own ads, we don't have anything to do that. I have a little something to do with the order of battle when [editorial] people come to us and they want to work with us. We're trying to fill in holes and offer a well-rounded media diet.
Will Flipboard dive deeper into multimedia such as feature films, TV, and eBooks?
Quittner: Yeah, we have plenty of video on Flipboard now, ABC News, for instance. Al Jazeera, Oprah, the BBC. I think our aim is to handle all media at some point. But we wanted to start with magazines because Mike is a real magazine nut. He loves magazines. He loves the beauty of magazines. And I think he sort of felt if we could do that, then we could do any of it.
Can you give CNET's readers a sneak peek of what's next from Flipboard?
Quittner: We're obviously very excited about our iPhone launch. When it's done we think it's going to be a very, very cool thing. Right now, we're based on Twitter feeds and RSS feeds, so everything that gets displayed on Flipboard is based on recency. Recent things are on the front page. That's not really how we're used to looking at news, right? We're used to looking at the most important thing up front. So I think that as we move from a Twitter or news-feed sense of news to a restoration of relevance it becomes a lot more interesting. So, if I only have five minutes, I would love to see the most important things, not the most recent things. That's an interesting direction for us.
What do you think about the increasing competition? There are a number of players now in the social-magazine space: Evri, Pulse, Zite, Editions, and Google's rumored "Propeller." How many social magazines do consumers need?
Quittner: There are lots of ways to consume media. I don't even really see the competition because I think we are competing against ourselves. That's another reason I wanted to work here, because Mike has very, very high standards. That's what he looks at, his own product. We're aware of things that other people are doing, but it's far more important to beat your own best. I think that's what great companies do. That's what Apple does. It's really bad to respond to competition. What we want to respond to is what we have done. How can we make that much better? How can we reinvent that? How can we blow that up? And go exponentially further than we did the last time?