Google unveils Fast Flip for newspapers and magazines

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Screen shot of the Fast Flip reader. Credit: Google.

Google, which has been likened to ‘parasites’ and ‘tapeworms’ by editors who resent the company’s efforts to aggregate news on the Web, this afternoon offered an olive branch to publishers of newspapers and magazines.

Unveiled by Marissa Mayer at a TechCrunch 50 event in San Francisco, Fast Flip is actually more of a carrot than an olive branch, because it offers publishers a potential additional revenue stream.


Here’s how it works.

Readers can rapidly browse articles much like flipping through physical magazine or newspaper pages. Fast Flip serves up screen shots of the Web pages containing relevant articles, cropped to show just the article and the masthead. While typical news Web pages can take several seconds to load, Fast Flip is designed to respond almost instantly, replicating the feel of a magazine.

The articles are organized by what’s popular among all readers that day, and by each reader’s personal preferences. Readers can refer the articles to their friends, or ‘like’ an article, much the same way articles are ‘Dugg.’ If a reader wants to go beyond the first screen to read the full article, a click takes them to the publisher’s website.

‘We wanted to bring the advantages of print media, the speed and hands-on control you get with a newspaper or magazine, and combine that with the technical advantages of the Internet,’ said Krishna Bharat, who created Google News and is a Google Distinguished Researcher. ‘Such as continuous updates, recommendations from the community and friends. We wanted the best of both worlds.’

But nothing in either world comes for free. To make money, Fast Flip also serves up contextual ads around the screen shots. To entice publishers to share their content on Fast Flip, Google agreed to share ‘the bulk’ of the revenue it receives from ads on Fast Flip’s pages.

About three dozen traditional print publishers ...

Screen shot of Google Fast Flip. Credit: Google.

... so far have taken a bite of the carrot, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, Business Week, Newsweek, the Center for Investigative Reporting and National Geographic. Publishers of online content have also thrown in their work, including Salon and TechCrunch. (Tribune, which owns the Los Angeles Times, is not among the participants.)

Fast Flip is making its debut today in Google Labs, a section of Google reserved for experimental products. Bharat described the 5-month-old product as in its ‘very early stages.’

‘We haven’t had a lot of time to understand how users will respond,’ Bharat said in an interview. ‘Putting it into Google Labs allows us to gestate an idea.’

The fledgling project is part of a broader effort by Google to help newspapers broaden the size of their audience, increase reader engagement and help monetize online content, Bharat said.

It’s also a way for Google to answer the slings and arrows thrown by its critics, including Wall Street Journal Editor Robert Thomson, who called the search company and other news aggregators such as Yahoo ‘parasites or tech tapeworms in the intestines of the Internet.’

The venomous words underscore a basic frustration among newspapers and magazines facing a precipitous plunge in revenue as readers flock online to read content free of charge.

Several efforts are underway to address the issue, including a proposal by News Corp. to build a consortium of newspapers that would charge its online readers. Another project, Steve Brill‘s Journalism Online, is seeking to develop the technology for collecting fees from readers. Brill’s effort has attracted more than 500 newspapers.

-- Alex Pham and Dawn Chmielewski

Follow my random thoughts on games, gear and technology on Twitter @AlexPham.