Are Operations Like Flipboard Scams Against Publishers?


Since we’d gotten a number of questions from readers, I jotted down a short post a couple days ago explaining that we’ve removed TPM from Flipboard, Google Currents and a number of other similar aggregator sites. I didn’t expect that the note would create a mini-storm in the digital news and ad community. So I wanted to explain and elaborate on just what I meant and why we’re doing this. Just note, this post is mainly about the tech, publishing and advertising world. So if you’re here for Shutdown coverage or just politics, this may not be your cup of tea.

First, there’s no single digital news publishing model. And I’m not trying to speak for everyone. Different sites have different editorial and business strategies. Also, ‘scam’ may have been a bit too harsh; no one forces a TPM or other sites to work with these services and they’re not really explicitly lying.

That said, I do think these services, as they currently exist are bad for publishers. We give them the entirety of our product – news stories, updates, posts, what-have-you – in exchange for a notional thing called exposure, brand awareness, blah blah blah and in theory or at some point in the future a cut of the ad revenues these services bring in for selling ads on their platforms. The problem is there are no ad revenues that go to the publishers. Where they exist they are literally trivial. The real payoff is supposed to be reach, letting new potential readers know we’re out there. In theory, that’s particularly important for small publishers like TPM who don’t have big budgets for promotional campaigns. You’re not going to see a big TPM ad on a bus you see drive by.

But say you find TPM on Flipboard, decide it’s great and add it to your viewing routine on Flipboard. Probably you just keep reading us on Flipboard. Clearly you like Flipboard or you wouldn’t be using it. So why would you start visiting TPM? You likely won’t. That may be great for you. It’s definitely great for Flipboard. But is it great for us? Not really. It boosts my ego, I guess. And more people may know about us. But where and how does that turn into our ability to convert that ‘audience’ into a revenue stream that allows us to create our product? I don’t think it does. Or it does in so in such a trivial and unquantifiable way as to be meaningless.

What I hear from some is, “Well, I just read Flipboard and I don’t have the time to visit a bunch of different sites. So you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face because you’re going to lose out on the audience I represent.” Well, that’s the key. That audience has nothing to do with us as a healthy news operation. We have no relationship with you. We don’t know about you in terms of how often you visit. When we tell advertisers how many people read our stuff we can’t include you in the number because we don’t know about you and really why would they care since ads we run don’t appear there. Most of all there’s no revenue stream tied to your readership.

Now, for individual readers I get that this is a bummer. And I don’t like the fact that we’re inconveniencing individual people. At some level this may also make me and ‘us’ sound terribly mercenary: anyone who reads has to be sending us some revenue stream, either via ads or subscriptions or by helping us leverage one of those first two. But TPM is a business that costs millions of dollars a year to run. In the immortal words of Steve Martin, it’s a profit deal! Or to put it more precisely in TPM terms, it’s a solvency deal.

But here’s where I think you get to something more general about the digital news economy. There was an early period when lots of these services multiplied when publishers were dazzled by a lot of marketing flimflam from VC-backed intermediaries about reach, and brand and a lot of other stuff. But mainly this was about building network effects around apps or other virtual locations, based on getting free content from publishers whose heads were spinning because of all the changes in the digital economy.

It all reminds me of the old yarn my dad used to tell me about the businessman who was losing money on every product he sold but figured he’d make it up in volume!

At some point you have to get off the bubble-think of somehow, somewhere, some way and get down to actual tangible economics.

So we’re all clear, we’re not at all about walling off what we produce. We have a big presence on Facebook, on Twitter and a lot of other places. We try like hell to get our stuff on Google News (something we’re trying to get rectified at the moment after our CMS switchover). We’re very big into and very aggressive about finding and using new distribution networks. But those mechanisms and sites and services are different. They have tie-ins back to our platforms or deliver clear value in other ways.

You can’t eat ‘reach’ and we can’t pay salaries with ‘brand awareness’. I don’t pretend to know other people’s business models or strategies. But successful business practices are always about having a close understanding of the costs of what you produce and the origins and mechanics of your revenues and more than anything else the interaction between the two.

From where we sit, in their current incarnations, these services are basically scams. I think their success is largely a matter of publishers being snowed by the mass transformations in publishing and particularly digital publishing and not being able to keep their heads about them.


Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of