Is FLYP the Future of Online Publishing?

The crisis of journalism's profitability is a story with many authors, and few solutions. Magazine circulation is down, newspaper revenue is plummeting, and the Internet has yet to demonstrate that it can replace the revenue model of the old media giants. Articles about journalism's downward spiral often include allusions to a game-changer -- something new and bold that will emerge from the industry's ashes of to provide quality journalism with the financial foundation it needs to support itself.

Could it be FLYP?

Jim Gaines certainly hopes so. Gaines is something like a breathing metaphor for journalism's online transformation. The former editor of Time, People and Life, he now holds the reigns at FLYP -- a new multimedia-laden online publishing platform that he joined about a year ago. Leading a team of about 12 designers, journalists and Flash experts, Gaines turns magazine stories into online features that mimic the structure of magazines. Each story is a series of e-pages chock-full of interactive candies, but designed to feel like a magazine -- you even click an icon to "flip" through the stories. Imagine a full-screen PDF of a magazine page with embedded features, like flyout charts and music and clickable images. That's FLYP. Here's one page in a story about the band Art Brut (see it online here).

The stories are impressively designed, if slightly esoteric. But it's best to judge them as an audition reel for journalism's future. Gaines says his team can manipulate interactive information with Flash "faster and better than probably anybody else."And some of his pages are truly marvels. But in an age when the New York Times acknowledges that its interactive features aren't designed to make money, how does Gaines expect to turn a profit when each stories requires 12 people working up to two weeks?

That's what I asked Jim Gaines when I interviewed him last week. He said he sees FLYP as the future of online publishing. Independent journalists can come to him with a story and ideas for incorporating video and slideshows and sound and music, and Gaines's team turn a one-dimensional magazine story into a layered interactive experience. Here are his answers to some key questions:

Why not just tell stories with words? It's much cheaper!
There's a story I did in Detroit called Breath of Hope where we tried to find the green shoots in Detroit -- in the poetry scene, the theater scene. We spent three days there. We closed it [the interactive story] in the next four days. If you look at it, it looks like we spent a month. It makes me pleased. It showed me what you can do in a short time in multimedia storytelling. It had everything from seeing a rehearsal going on, to jazz, to arts happening in neighborhoods, to people helping people getting out of jail, to urban gardens, taking care of homeless and hungry people, it was just a bountiful story. And it was a story that really required video and audio, sharing these peoples' dreams and hopes and fears and ambitions. (Watch Breath of Hope here.)

Who else do you think "gets" interactive online journalism?
Honestly the people that I see doing the work closest to what we're doing and in some respects better is in advertising.

For now FLYP is wholly financed through Alfonso Romo, the Mexican entrepreneur. How do you expect to make money with FLYP in the future?
I think that it will begin with partnerships. Go where you're invited. All sorts of opportunities are being opened to us to be partners with people who want to move their properties in different kinds of models. Ultimately we'd like to become a fully developed media company like McGraw Hill, but maybe also doing annual reports and text books. Nobody reads a CEO letter but somebody might listen to him or her. We can do charts in ways that actually impart information. In corporate communications there's an opportunity. Instead of becoming infamous for being the latest magazine to fold a title, we become the first to transform the title into an entirely online publication. We can fulfill their subscription by relieving it of the burden of paper ink costs. In music and film or yachting, they are more interested in seeing and hearing it. I don't understand why it is taking so long. Textbooks are going online. So we're talking to textbook publishers.

But that means you'd be journalists -- or at least publishers -- doing work for companies that might be the subject of important news stories. Would that create a crisis of journalistic integrity?
There would need to be some sort of Chinese wall between doing things for companies and then casting them in a negative light. When I was at Time, we wrote about GM which was a very important advertisers. It can be done.

Let's talk about advertising. One of the problems I know that the NYT has with their wonderful and involved interactives is that they take much longer to write than an op-ed but they (a) sometimes get less traffic and (b) can't fit any more ads on that webpage. How do you get around that to become profitable as a interactives-only company?
The problem of advertising on the web boils down to supply and demand. The internet provides infinite supply. When you're talking about banner adds you're talking about a commodity business. It's about eye balls and hits and clicks and its not about engagement or environment. Those aspects of advertisement that have often brought high ad revenue to magazines. Rich media is precisely that. Their description of the problem is absolutely right. If we at FLYP try to put an ad between every page, it would look like speed bumps. For rich media, there is a supply cap. I don't think I've ever clicked on a Google Ad.

The kind of advertising that we expect to be attracting at FLYP is rich media advertising that is for an engaged advertising. It would be more of a sponsorship model than traditional advertising model. Rich media ads with video. Lots of research shows that those ads are much better at engaging buyers. So rich media advertising could solve the supply and demand problem and create better advertising. It's more fun. Forward leading advertisers are realizing that brand equity is declining among consumers.

But if rich media advertisements are inherently better, why wouldn't they just go to somewhere like CNN or where they can find lower CPMs? Does rich media advertising require rich media content?
Yes. As my partner Alan Stoga said recently, when you come to rich media ad on a regular site, it's like somebody's wearing a suit on a beach. And so yes I do think that for advertising in rich media you want rich media content. On the other hand, maybe it doesn't (need rich media content). Maybe all advertising works better on regular websites. I don't know.


The idea of FLYP designing the textbooks of the future is thrilling to me. But personally, I don't think I'm ready for FLYP as a portal for my daily reading. Not yet, anyway. For my job and my reading habits, the simplest platforms -- online articles, blogs, Google Reader -- are the most natural, because I only want the words.

At the same time, I can imagine how something like FLYP could be a great fit for the coming E-Reader revolution. Imagine reading a FLYP-ized Rolling Stone issue online on your Apple Tablet. Click on the movie reviews and you'd see Peter Travers opine, or watch the movie trailer. Click on music reviews and you'd hear snippets of the album. You could even click on Matt Taibbi feature stories and hear him scream about Goldman Sachs. Or imagine e-reading National Geographic, if you could click a picture of the Serengeti to zoom in, watch video, or learn more about animals tagged in the picture.

The magazine as a living multimedia experience. That's what FLYP represents. Perhaps financing the dazzling features will be impossible to do on an independent budget. But at the very least, the next time somebody tells you that online journalism isn't being bold enough, tell them they clearly don't know FLYP.