How We Read Today: On, Flipboard and Zite

For the past few weeks I have been trying out the assorted news aggregation apps on the iPad: Flipboard, Pulse and Zite. However, I have been withholding judgement until I got to try, which came out yesterday. I have some thoughts about that new app, and about the entire field of aggregation apps. 

1) Let Me Participate
I’ve really been enjoying the way all of these apps pull content from my social stream, giving me a much better and more approachable way to browse the links my networks are posting on Twitter and Facebook. Zite – which tries to be the Pandora of news – also let’s me give articles “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” and will serve up more content from certain authors, topics or publications based on my reading habits. However, all of these aggregators rely more on algorithms and automation, than participation.

I want an aggregator app that gives me more of a role to play, something that combines the automation of aggregation and the customization of curation. For example, even while experimenting with those apps, I found myself needing to go to my Google Reader and Instapaper accounts to read other articles from the RSS feeds I follow and that I saved for later reading. While some apps let me pull in articles from Google Reader, none have combined all my reading sources in one place. Letting me add content to be read later, either through Instapaper or another method, would help round out the social streams these apps bring together. I want a app that combines the serendipity of links posted across my networks, with the structure of my own hand-picked articles.

2) Let Me Choose How to Pay
The Pew State of the News Media report in 2010 famously said that we are a nation of news grazers, which is one of the reasons that paywalls are such a hard sell. In her recent blog post on this topic Mandy Brown writes, “the Times paywall does not map to my reading behavior.” She continues:

“I don’t read a single source for the news—I read thousands. I consume the news from all directions—from venerable institutions like the Times, to blogs that obsess over particular topics, to tweets from witnesses, and every imaginable source in between. I want news that is the aggregate of all these sources, that admits all of these varying (and often contrary) perspectives. Erecting paywalls between these locations misunderstands the ecosystem that each story participates in. The value I find in the news today is in its connectedness—in the ways in which often divergent sources come together to create a story—not its solitary authority. […] We are no longer monogamous readers, loyal to a single source; rather, we read voraciously, looking for patterns, teasing out the things that matter to us, making connections, and then (often) writing about them ourselves. We are consumers of news, not The News.”

This rang true to me and is one of the reasons I have been so enthusiastic about these aggregation apps. I was particularly excited that allowed me to pay one subscription and graze across a wide array of sources, knowing that each site I visit (within the partners) would get a slice of that subscription price. However, the subscriptions, like the news feed, too reliant on automation. That is, there is no choice in the payment methods. Subscriptions are 99 cents a week, charged through iTunes. This may just be personal, but I hate weekly charges on my credit card or bank account and wish the app gave me a choice to pay once a month or once a year. This cuts down on their transaction costs and let’s them bank my year’s worth of weekly payments in advance. I don’t know if the weekly charge is related to an iTunes stipulation, but it’s a big sticking point for me.

3) Let Me Archive and Annotate
As a blogger, researcher, organizer and policy advocate I’m constantly referring back to old articles for facts, statistics, quotes, etc. I’m also a voracious note taker, and I prefer to take notes in the margins of articles as I read. I want to underline great quotes, important findings or provocative ideas. None of these apps provide a may to make notes as you read, share those notes with others or archive them for your own use. The Kindle app has implemented this fairly well, though not perfect. But as far as I can tell, no news reading app has made a point of including such a feature. Some Twitter apps have build on a clipping functionality so you can send links and articles to Evernote, but I haven’t seen that in these aggregation apps yet.

Are these features of use or interest to most people? Probably not. I realize that free apps, with simple, automated news aggregation and payment schemes are perfect for a lot of people. However, I’d be willing to pay more for these kinds of options that help me not just consume the news, but also use it.

I want an application that recognizes that news is important and powerful because it is rich with information that is meant to empower communities, inspire people and be employed to help us engage the world around us.


  1. Josh says:

    Update – this news just out today: Google News now personalizes results based on users’ viewing history

  2. Hi Josh,

    I saved this post and wanted to properly come back to it. You’ve made a lot of great observations about the current deficiencies in these readers. I’m with you on all of them. Social reading and friend-led curation is not personalization.

    We’re due for a follow-up, and I’m going to email you, because Eqentia can do the 3 things you’ve mentioned here:
    1) I want Automation of aggregation and customization of curation, 2) Let Me Archive and Annotate, 3) an app that combines the serendipity of links posted across my networks, with the structure of my own hand-picked articles.

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