Last April Fools' Day, publishers from Time Inc. to the Washington Post Company sent fast-growing startup Zite an aggressive cease-and-desist letter. The publishers weren't joking, accusing Zite's app, a personalized news reader for the iPad and iPhone, of copyright infringement and calling it "plainly unlawful."
Fast-forward to this year, and Zite, which CNN acquired in September for a reported $20 million, is trying to get back in the good graces of publishers. Today, the startup unveiled the Zite Publisher Program, an initiative to ease content-partner concerns over Zite's use of their content. Rather than just simply feature news categories tailored to your tastes—interior design, state politics, surfing—Zite is now offering publishers the opportunity to be featured as their own news categories. Unsurprisingly, CNN is one of the first publishers to jump on board for the program.
Now, if Zite determines your interests are relevant, it'll bubble up news publisher suggestions in addition to category recommendations. "We have a lot of information about a person's interest graph, so we can target Bleacher Report to sports fans, and target Motley Fool to finance fans," says CEO Mark Johnson. Other participating publishers include The Daily Beast and VentureBeat.
The benefits, Johnson says, are two-fold: Zite's discovery engine will help readers discover new publications, and those publishers can in turn try to upsell those readers subscriptions or app downloads. "Within the content, there's an option for publishers to promote themselves," he says. "So users might find a piece of content, add the publisher as a section, and like it so much that they decide to get the full experience through a subscription or application download."
The only catch is that participating publishers must appear in "reader mode," which features the content within Zite's app, rather than "web mode," which opens the publisher's website directly in the app (complete with the publisher's advertising), just as when you click a link on Twitter.
Currently, no publisher on Zite receives more than 2% of total clicks. "But we think by adding these publisher categories, that number will go up, and publishers we'll get a lot more pageviews," Johnson says. "At that point, it makes more sense to add an advertising model."
It also makes sense considering that Zite's parent company isn't a news aggregator but a source for original news. We've highlighted how oddly altruistic it is that Zite bubbles up content that competes with CNN, just as Zite-look-alike AOL Editions bubbles up content that competes with The Huffington Post.
Zite's new feature finally enables CNN to promote its own content and apps with the program it paid tens of millions of dollars for. The strategy is especially relevant considering recent rumors that CNN is planning to acquire Mashable for $200 million.
But Johnson says Zite is angnostic to promoting its own publishers. Only content relevent to your interests will be suggested. "We're trying to work with publishers that produce a lot of content, with well-known brands," Johnson says.
"I have no knowledge of such," he adds. "We operate so independently."
[Image: Flickr user JohnThurm]