July 30, 2012

Rafat Ali — who built paidContent, sold paidContent, took two years off to travel and said he did not want to go back to beating his head against the collapsing wall of journalism — is back in journalism.

But as you might expect from someone who spent years puzzling through media innovation, Ali is bringing some fresh ideas to his new project.

“Intelligence,” not just news

The new venture, Skift, describes itself as a “travel intelligence media company that offers news, insight, data, tools and services to the travel industry and the very large community of business travelers.”

“News,” yes, but also data, tools and services. That’s not the typical media company portfolio.

Skift promises travel industry “intelligence,” beyond news articles.

Ali talks eagerly of data on local tourism, airport passengers, airlines, hotels and more — most of which is held in obscure government repositories. It just needs to be centralized and linked to unlock its value.

“We are planning to build a very large repository of the publicly available travel industry information, and then build services on top of it. And we feel like that’s where the real opportunity for us lies,” Ali told me by phone last week. “Media is the way to build the brand; data is the way to build the revenue in the long term.”

You can think of it broadly as a Politico model — a free news website like Politico.com for people who work in or closely follow politics, plus a premium paid service like Politico Pro. Or perhaps Bloomberg and Reuters are a closer comparison, both of which make ample money selling financial data and services, with news content as a supplement.

Access to Skift’s travel data can someday be sold to businesses who can profit from the intelligence, Ali said. And possibly some consumer-focused products will emerge from it as well.

But until the data strategy ripens, Skift is for now essentially a media project. And Ali has an interesting plan for that portion of the project as well.

The four legs

He has developed what he calls a “four-legged stool” content-production model. “This is a smart, quick way to scale in content — to have all these four things together — and it requires a mix of technology plus humans,” he said.

The legs are:

1. Aggregation: Topic pages, like this one for American Airlines, automatically compile relevant news from other sources around the Web.

2. Curation: This is aggregation with a human touch. Curated articles are selected by an editor, summarized and also include a box labeled “Skift Take” — the editor’s own explanation of why the story matters.

Skift Take puts an original spin on curated content.

For both aggregation and curation, Skift is using a platform called PublishThis, which manages the full chain — from discovering relevant content through RSS, Twitter and Web crawling, enabling the editor to select and arrange the desired pieces for curation, to feeding the content into WordPress.

3. Licensed content: Skift sublicenses travel-related stories from publishers including AP, Reuters, Bloomberg, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph and others through NewsCred.

“For us it’s an easy way — it’s a flat fee, one license,” Ali said. “We also have access to the image libraries from Getty and Reuters and such, which is huge, because that individually can cost quite a lot.”

But why pay to license some content, when you already aggregate and curate other items for free? “There’s an SEO reason for it, which is if you’re just curating, then Google and other search engines don’t like you so much,” Ali said. “These are original stories that we have licensed, so Google likes us better that way.”

4. Original content: Skift will add its own original enterprise reporting on travel issues, including covering startup companies disrupting the travel industry and doing data-driven reporting based on its data systems. The daily flow of industry news will be represented by the aggregation, curation and licensed content.

Right now all original reporting falls to News Editor Dennis Schaal, one of three full-time employees. Eventually there will be more staff writers, but don’t expect to see a “huge ‘newsroom,’ ” Ali said. “The idea here is to build the brand through media, scale through data.”

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Jeff Sonderman (jsonderman@poynter.org) is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
Jeff Sonderman

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