Nextly

Boston-based startup Nextly has today launched a browser-based tool that lets users curate news articles into collections and then share them with the rest of the Internet.

Nextly’s chief advantages are speed and friendliness to the original source of the content. Its collections can be shared via a single URL, which then links to a playlist of stories that can be flipped through quickly by hitting on the “Next” button. Because the stories in the collection are pre-loaded, readers can zip through the content at a rapid clip. All the stories load on the original websites, preserving their design and sending pageviews to the creators of the content. The Nextly functions are displayed in a glorified toolbar overlaid on top of the publishers’ Web pages.

Publishers including Slate, Forbes, the LA Times, the BBC, and College Humor are impressed enough by the technology that they have been using the service in a closed beta for months, sharing Nextly.com links via their Twitter accounts. They’re doing that, says Nextly founder and CEO Ziad Sultan, because tests have shown that a reader who clicks on a Nextly link goes on to read, on average, another three to 10 articles in the collection. Because the articles are pre-loaded, the time cost is low.

As of today, Nextly users now have the same powers of the publishers, so they can curate their own collections using a bookmarklet within the app. Nextly then gives those curators some basic analytics to let them know how many times their collections are being read.

Sultan sees the service, which is powered by humans instead of algorithms, as a more effective way of centralizing the curation and sharing of content that is currently spread among numerous social nodes, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit. “What we’re really inventing is a curated Web browser,” he says of the company, which is a Techstars graduate and has raised $2.2 million in seed money ($700,000 of which was for a previous iteration of the product, which focused on Web annotations). And, unlike other reading apps, it all takes place in a browser, so collections can be opened and read anywhere, on any device. He calls it a “thin layer on top of the Web.”

Nextly’s aesthetics can get cluttered on small screens, so it’s not a perfect usability experience on smartphones, or even 11-inch laptops. And some people will prefer not to have the blight of a toolbar sitting on top of a Web page while they peruse its contents. The intent of the toolbar is to preserve the sanctity of the publisher’s original design, but the unavoidable truth is that it also distracts from it.

Still, as far as publishers see it, it might be preferable to the alternatives – such as Flipboard, Zite, Prismatic, and News360 – which tend to take content produced by others and stuff it into their mobile apps and their own design parameters.

A couple of weeks ago, Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall caused a stir in the media-tech world by saying reading apps like Flipboard are “basically scams against publishers.” Publishers hand over their content and Flipboard repackages it into its app, depriving the publishers of pageviews and taking readers to see Flipboard’s ads instead of their own. That ostenibly provides good exposure for the publisher, but that exposure doesn’t necessarily convert into revenue. As Marshall would say in a follow-up post, “You can’t eat ‘reach’ and we can’t pay salaries with ‘brand awareness’.”

After talking with Flipboard founder and CEO Mike McCue, Marshall later said he would consider feeding Talking Points Memo content to Flipboard in the future if the company shared more advertising revenue with it, as it does with larger publishers, such as Conde Nast. McCue told him more sales products for small and medium-sized publishers are in the works.

The discussion highlighted a major problem for these reading apps, which use their “scalable” technology to benefit from content produced by others. It seems that some of the publishers on the platform, such as Vanity Fair, have come to a workable revenue-sharing agreement with Flipboard, which claims that it can charger higher rates for the ads it displays. But the fact remains that, by handing over their content to news reading apps, publishers have to take a leap of faith. They must give up control of their main product and hope for the best.

Nextly provides a more publisher-friendly option. If it reaches scale, it can expose publishers to new audience while also simultaneously driving readers to the original sites. Those pageviews can convert to ad dollars, and curators can get the benefit of feeling like they’re tastemakers. It’s like a user-controlled version of StumbleUpon.

For now, Nextly is a nice vision. It is, certainly, less “scammy” than its predecessors, but at the same time it’s also less visually appealing. Ultimately, it’s biggest challenge, however, will be convincing people that the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit haven’t already solved the problem of “What do I read next?”