For anyone who owns an iPad, it’s no surprise that Flipboard is a breakthrough. The one-year-old application allows you to instantly turn any news site, social feed, or photo stream into a slick, tablet-optimized, ad-free magazine — a pretty neat parlor trick. Apple selected it as their app of the year and Time listed it as one of their top 50 innovations of 2010. Some people see it as a clever new way to browse their Facebook and Twitter content; others see it as an affront to copyright law; and a few even envision it as the future of publishing. I prefer to think of it as sliced bread.
Not “the best thing since”; but rather, sliced bread itself.
A moment to look at the history of the expression: It was in 1928 that an invention by Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa, completely turned the bread industry on its head. Until the advent of his innovative bread-slicing machine, nobody had appreciated just how uneven and messy regular old knife-sliced bread really was. And more to the point: no bakers or commercial bakeries up to that point had any idea just how much thinly, evenly sliced bread would increase bread consumption across the county.
That’s how I saw Flipboard for the fist few months: a clever way to turn news and other content into pieces that were both elegantly formatted and easy to digest. Little did I know that, like Rohwedder’s machine, this wasn’t just a parlor trick, but a full-on paradigm change.
One day, while fiddling with the app, I decided to start importing Twitter lists I’d created. I imported a list of users who write about WordPress, which instantly created a spiffy kind of magazine devoted to the blog software. I had another list devoted to the Gannett New Jersey papers I work for — combining accounts @AsburyParkPress, @DailyRecord, @CPSJ — which, when imported, had the interesting effect of creating a kind of statewide magazine (hmm, wheels turning …). Just to test how far I could take this, I hopped over to Twitter and cobbled together a list of some tweeters in my town, Haddonfield, NJ. Just the ones I could remember off the top of my head. The local theater company, the Borough twitter account, the Patch.com reporter, and weekly publication. It took a minute or so for Flipboard to finish populating the content. And another minute to flip through a dozen pages.
And then about 10 minutes more for me collect my jaw off the floor.
It’s tough to remember the exact moment that I became enamored with the idea of launching a hyperlocal website — likely at some point between reading the New York Times’s “The Local,” visiting the newly christened Patch.com, and posting my first pothole to SeeClickFix, I think. But it was this Flipboard moment, when I created a Haddonfield magazine in about 5 minutes, that I realized just how misguided my attempts to build a hyperlocal blog network probably were.
It’s not that the 17 InJersey sites I’d helped create were bad. I still maintain they were awesome. They contained a wealth of local reporting, occasional in-depth stories, and plenty of calendar items and community posts. But, well, the 5-min Flipboard hyperlocal was still better. It looked spectacular, for starters. And it contained precisely the content (and writers) I was interested in following. For months I’d been dreaming of launching a Haddonfield InJersey blog — perhaps authoring it myself. But thanks to a few taps on the iPad screen, I had exactly what I’d been looking for.
Not sure whether I’d just gotten lucky at first, I replayed the experiment on several other towns.
Step 1: Go to Twitter, create a list, and make it public. Find users and publications in town, add them to list.
Step 2: Launch Flipboard and click on the “+” space to add content.
Step 3: Select Twitter account from the “Social” list at the top, and find the list just created.
Step 4: Wait 1-2 minutes while Flipboard populates the content.
Step 5: All done. Brand spanking new hyperlocal publication ready to rock.
Without fail, this worked for every location. Watch the video below for a full-on demo. The only real challenge was searching for interesting, regularly updated Twitter accounts, but usually it would take no more than 5 minutes to locate a representative sample. And of course, as new Twitter handles emerged, it took only seconds to add them to the list.
Of course, this whole exercise wasn’t anything more than “aggregating content” — a phrase I find just about as irritating to speak as it is to write. Still, what the Flipboard/Twitter trick offers that’s different from most other aggregation approaches is a simple DIY method to curate your own sources. Unlike the kind of meta curation offered by the Huffington Posts or Silicon Alley Insiders (or even Street Fight), this method allows you to chose as many or as few sources as you like. Love shopping? Add in the tweets from local merchants. Not into high school sports? Leave off the sports team.
So what’s the catch? Oh yeah, that “ad-free” thing. One of the most nettlesome things about Flipboard is the fact that it strips ads out when displaying its neatly formatted version of content. You can still opt to view the original version of a story, ads and all, though in my experience I rarely do this. Flipboard also has their own special ad format, which is built to display full screen inbetween page flips on specially created feeds from high-profile publishers (alas, no hyperlocals on that list yet).
The obvious question for any hyperlocal (or general news) site that makes its money off advertising: If Flipboard is just going to strip my ads, why not just block them from my content completely? OK, bad idea. Before you begin messing with your robots.txt file, remember: Flipboard is just one of many apps seeking to simplify and clean up the digital reading experience. Instapaper, Pulse, and Reeder are just a handful of other apps I use regularly that perform the same kind of add stripping out. Even the latest iteration of Safari has a “Reader” button that strips out ads and other extraneous digital effluvium.
Instead, what you need to do is build your advertisements into special syndicated versions of your content — both published and unpublished RSS feeds. In the next installment of this column, I’ll look at some of the best practices for how to do this, and other ways to watermark your content.
Until then, here’s a demo of how the Flipboard-ification of a hyperlocal Twitter list works:
Ted Mann (@turkeymonkey) is Digital Development Director for Gannett NJ, where he leads the online strategy for six newspapers – the Asbury Park Press, Courier-Post, Daily Record, Courier News, Home News Tribune, and The Daily Journal. In addition founding the InJersey.com hyperlocal blog network and working on the core newspaper websites, he also manages a Daily Deal site that spans six counties and the NJ Best Buys local shopping portals.