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The End of the Open Web?

Reading apps like Flipboard–which remove ads and other design elements from pages–are putting more pressure on Web publishers.

“We are witnessing the start of a new business model for the internet.”

– Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, head of News Corp, the world’s second-largest media conglomerate, on delivery of content via tablet computers

“Compared to the mobile sites most publishers put up online (ahem!), [iPad “social magazine” app] Flipboard is a wonder.”

Dan Costa of PC Magazine

“When we build our business model here, it’s not going to be on the backs of the publishers, it will be with the publishers–you know we’re going to make money with them not off of them. You’ll see that play out as we continue to go forward with the business model.”

– Flipboard founder Mike McCue

Modern web design is awful.

Banner ads compete for our attention with lists of related articles and other come-hithers designed to keep us on a website as long as possible. The entire enterprise of web design for news sites – the sites that are supposed to maintain the well-informed citizenry that is the foundation of a functioning democracy – is aimed at revenue generation.

Publishers subject their users to noxious design in part because they have to: the web falls woefully short in terms of generating revenue comparable to what’s been lost in print by countless newspapers and magazines, so anything that multiplies ad revenue (more ad positions) and pageviews (more promotion) has to be implemented.

To address this situation, a growing list of tools promises to return our online reading experience to the distraction-free Eden we experience in print. Readability, the new Safari web browser, paid mobile apps and now the “social magazine” Flipboard all do one thing well: strip away everything on the screen but the content itself.

The problem, of course, is that the “everything else” that a growing chorus of web users don’t want to see includes advertisements - the one thing keeping the information flowing.

“If Flipboard isn’t the future of magazines, it is at least a very good take on the future.”

Farhad Manjoo of Slate

The solution to the problem of how to deliver content without ads is obvious: lock up your content and charge for it. That’s what Rupert Murdoch is doing. He says this strategy is already working well for the Times of London. Meanwhile, U.S. magazine giant Conde Nast is testing a more tepid version of the same strategy with its iPad apps - launching content on its app that will appear on the web later, if ever.

A second solution is to continue to deliver ads, but to increase their utility and presence to the point that they resemble regular magazine advertising. That’s the strategy proposed by iPad digital magazine meta-app Flipboard, which proposes to share the resulting ad revenue with publishers.

There’s only one problem with that solution: if Flipboard continues its explosive growth, turning every news site on the web into just one more incoming stream of content, it will become a defacto gate-keeper - every magazine with digital content will have a new expense on their balance sheet: a tithe paid to Flipboard.

What’s more, having digital content further atomized into individual articles and delivered through a central “social magazine” will strip publishers of other important sources of revenue that revolve around knowing who their readers are. They’ll no longer be able to sell mailing lists, conduct the kind of reader surveys that allow them to sell ads in the first place, or conduct cross-promotion and subscription campaigns in general.

Publishing on the web is at a crossroads: the open system designed originally for the free exchange of scientific knowledge is great at distributing information, and consequently, pretty terrible at creating the artificial scarcity and delivering captive audiences for advertising messages - on which most for-profit publishing depends.

On the other hand, magazines as paid apps is a model that shows at least some promise, and the proliferation of paywalls, whether or not it succeeds, indicates that some publishers are at the point that they’ll get their readers to pay for news or die trying.

The end result appears to be a balkanization of news: sites like the Huffington Post that reprint generic facts on the one hand, while everything that requires more than 15 minutes work at the rewrite desk known as the blogosphere goes behind an iron curtain of DRM, paid apps and specialized devices.

Unless, of course, companies like Flipboard can deliver on their promise to “save the media.”

“I can understand why there might be questions about something new that’s different, but we’ve really tried to do it from the point of view of the publishers, and we believe that we can create an environments that’s actually really great for the publishers, really great for the readers, and also really great for the advertisers.”

– Flipboard founder Mike McCue

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

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