Mar 29, 2013 · 7 minutes

Almost exactly a year ago today, while still a freelancer in the wilds of journalism, I wrote a guest post for PandoDaily envisaging the future of magazines. In that piece, I argued that the future of magazine consumption should look a lot more like Spotify than the likes of Apple Newsstand. Magazine stories should be disaggregated and distributed, I argued, and then hosted on a platform with deep social hooks and the ability to integrate with third-party apps.* On such a platform, magazine publishers would act more as brands than bundles, and people could follow their friends and favorite authors.

At the time, I noted that Flipboard didn’t fit that description because it was merely an RSS reader with good design and some sharing functions pasted on. But that has changed.

A couple of days ago, as you no doubt have already heard, Flipboard released the next-generation version of its "social magazine" app. Suddenly, everyone who uses Flipboard now has the ability to curate their own packages of content – not to be confused with the creating their own magazines – and can follow anyone else who does so. The new Flipboard is much closer to that dream vision for magazine consumption.

For purposes both narcissistic and academic, let’s go through and see how well the new Flipboard matches up to the imagined product that I was calling “Mag Reader.” The following block quotes are passages from my original story, "The future of magazines should look a lot like Spotify."

When you open Mag Reader, it shows you a list of the latest works from your favorite publications, as well as ones that align with your interests, or the stories currently most talked about on social media.

Flipboard has nailed this, but rather than do it in a list form, it instead displays a grid of the publications you follow, be they official titles such as PandoDaily or Vanity Fair, or packages curated by people whose taste you trust. Included among those are feeds for stories shared on Facebook and Twitter, but Flipboard already had that feature.

Each story is listed with a small picture, headline, by-line, date, relevancy rating (just like Netflix’s customized recommendations), introductory teaser, and publisher name. Before clicking through, you can expand each one to see more art work, the first few paragraphs, who has recommended the story, links to similar stories, and what else the publisher has put out recently. If you feel the urge, you can even buy the magazine issue into which the piece has been bundled for paper consumption.
Flipboard has no master feed for all stories on the platform that match your interests or are otherwise relevant to you. Instead, it surfaces stories only within packages to which you are subscribed – specific publications, social feeds, Flipboard picks, and the like – which is just as good. Publication names and teasers are all in check, but there is no Netflix-style relevancy rating, which really just falls into the “nice to have” category. You can, however, see who else has recommended the stories, and within packages related to particular publishers, there are occasional links to outside stories thrown in for purposes of serendipitous discovery. I haven’t seen any instances of Flipboard pushing people to subscribe to paper versions of magazines, or to buy a single issue, but the Vanity Fair package does contain an ad for its iPad app. As publishers get hip to the potential of referral traffic from Flipboard, they’ll start taking advantage of lead generation opportunities.

You have a profile page, just like you do on Spotify or Facebook, on which your most recently read stories are listed alongside the stories you recommend most highly. On your page, you can also list your favourite magazines and writers, along with your interests. Perhaps you even list all the readers you follow, Twitter-style. You can discover new stories through the social connections you have built around your profile, just like you do now through Twitter, Facebook, and Google Reader (people still use that, right?).

Yes, you have a profile page on Flipboard, but, rather than stories you’ve read, it lists your subscriptions. Just as good, really. I’d like to see Flipboard let readers flesh out their profiles more by listing interests and writers they admire – data that could then be used to suggest suitable reading material. (Side note: Sadly prescient comment about Google Reader there.)

Each writer has a profile, too. Some writers will be affiliated with magazines; some will be independent. You can follow your favorite writers, so you’ll always know when they have a new story out. On his profile, a writer has a bio, links to his stories, and perhaps even a “works in progress” section that comes with a “donate” button, so readers can make financial contributions to stories they’d like to see materialize, Kickstarter-style.
This feature is not yet present on Flipboard. Perhaps something for version 3.0? Writers can, however, curate “magazines” filled just with their work. I created one with the elaborate title “Hamish McKenzie’s Stories,” just in case anyone wants to keep track of my best work from PandoDaily. So far I have five readers. Suck on that, Vanity Fair.
Publishers have brand pages, as well, just like on Facebook. At each page, you can read about the magazine, check out the masthead, perhaps watch some behind-the-scenes footage, and maybe even subscribe to their bundled products.
Publishers hosted or linked to on Flipboard right now get a one-line blurb describing what they cover – for PandoDaily, it’s “Reporting on the startup ecosystem” – but I’d like to see more. Since Flipboard is building its product around their content, it ought to give them more of a space to show off what they’re about, and to sell other stuff. If you are relying on their free content to build your product, which might well take traffic away from their monetized websites, you have a responsible to help them stay alive through other means.

Like Facebook and Spotify, Mag Reader can host third-party apps – such as Longreads and The Atlantic’s Best of Journalism – that offer curated reading lists.

So far, Flipboard has plenty of curated reading lists, which is great, but no third-party apps. One has to think they’re coming, though.

The story-reading experience is seamless and alive. You can highlight passages you want to make a note of, just like you can on the Kindle. You can look up specific words in a dictionary. Publishers can easily integrate multimedia into their stories. Writers can update their stories as new information comes to hand. On each story you can leave comments that will then, if you so choose, publish to your Facebook profile. You will be able to sort comments on the stories to prioritize the ones written by “Friends” or “Friends of Friends”.

On Flipboard, you can’t highlight passages or look up definitions – and that will be difficult, because presumably those features would only work for the content hosted on native Flipboard pages, and not on each publisher’s Web pages. It would be great if Flipboard offered publishers and writers the ability to integrate extra content into their stories, and to update them, but those features are probably a long way off, if they come at all. You can leave comments on stories within the Flipboard app, which is cool, but at this point it doesn’t look like you can sort them by friend distinction.

The design is beautiful and publisher-led, so each story retains its publisher-specific imprimatur, but within certain parameters that make the reading experience consistent and intuitive.

Beautiful design, and Flipboard sends traffic to publishers’ own websites, unless they come on as partners, allowing them to retain their design autonomy.

I spent the rest of my original article discussing ways that the “Mag Reader” could make money from an all-you-can-eat subscription model and share revenue with publishers. As I pointed out on Wednesday, Flipboard now makes money from referral fees through driving sales to the likes of Etsy, and it also splits ad revenues with publishers. Hopefully it can come up with new ways to help publishers make money, too, because content is expensive.

All in all, Flipboard comes pretty damn close to my vision for the future of magazines – and in some ways – the way it packages stories, for instance – it’s better. It will be fascinating to watch as the product evolves and becomes even more of a force in content consumption. Next up, I’d of course like to see the addition of publisher and author profiles, third-party apps, and relevancy ratings on stories. But there is one key part of the puzzle that is so far missing that I really hope is coming soon, especially now that Google Reader is on its deathbed. Flipboard is available for mobile and tablets, but it has no Web version for desktops and laptops. If it really is the future of magazines, it has to be everywhere.

Let’s make it happen, Flipboard.

* Let me apologize right now for inserting myself into this story so much, but it's kind of unavoidable.