When Rafat Ali launched Paid Content in 2002, he created one of the earliest successful digital publishing businesses by, quite cleverly, covering the emerging digital publishing business.            

Today, Ali is helping to revolutionize digital publishing again with a new venture that pioneers the use of data to not only develop high-profile, brand-burnishing stories but also to generate fresh, recurring and defensible revenue streams.            

In the process, Ali has architected a thoroughly modern digital publishing business. Legacy and digital publishers would be wise to study—and perhaps emulate—it.         

Here’s the story:            

Shortly after selling Paid Content to Guardian News & Media for some $30 million in 2010, Ali took a world tour to dream up his next big idea. As he traipsed from plane to hotel and hotel to plane, Ali realized that the information available to the 260 million people working in the $6.5 trillion global tourism industry was fragmentary, fragmented and hard to find.            

So, he launched Skift.Com in early 2012 to solve the problem and, in the absence of significant competition, quickly became a leading news source for the travel industry. Unencumbered by a paywall, Skift sells high-CPM advertising and provides content to the likes of CNN, NBC, Quartz and Business Insider. Positioning itself as an industry thought leader, Skift also publishes two premium research reports each month, which it sells in a $99 package.            

Ali isn’t stopping with these well-established revenue streams. He now is embarked on gathering, analyzing and selling data about his readers—so he can sell it back to them through a product called SkiftIQ, which also costs $99 a month.           

In the first of what Ali says will be a growing array of datasets, he counted Twitter followers, Facebook likes, YouTube views and Instagram shares to quantify the marketing prowess of dozens of travel brands on the social media. Thus, Skift earlier this year determined that KLM was a more effective social marketer than American Airlines and Amtrak.            

While travelers may not care about the social media mojo of their hotels, the information means a great deal to Marriott, Expedia, Lonely Planet, Airbnb, Norwegian Cruise Lines and all the other brands competing for mind- and market-share in a highly competitive and price-sensitive industry.            

Skift’s approach to gathering, crunching and selling data is not unique. It is but one of a growing number of next-generation digital publishers who understand that rich and granular data is the key to (a) personalizing content for busy consumers who only want to know what they need to know and (b) targeting ads for marketers who only want to pursue well-qualified prospects.            

Thoroughly modern digital publishers use data to identify and report stories; to understand and build audience; to improve reader loyalty and dwell time; to place targeted, high-value advertising, and to create products, like SkiftIQ, that they can sell to readers, advertisers or third-party services aiming to analyze consumer trends.            

Although Skift is a business-to-business publisher, consumer-facing media companies like newspapers and local broadcasters also can gather and disseminate data that is useful to their readers and advertisers.            

Zillow, which has gobbled up a chunk of the real estate readership and revenue that newspapers have lost in recent years, illustrates the allure of rich local data: From the consumer point of view, Zillow updates home and rental values on a granular, almost-daily basis. It ranks the schools adjacent to each home.  It estimates mortgage payments and property taxes.  It even has developed a Walkability score that gauges how often you are likely to need a car to access supermarkets, parks and cafes. From the commercial point of view, Zillow has tons of pictures and data about homes in a neighborhood, which real estate agents (and consumers) can use to prospect for listings and develop price comparisons.  In addition to selling display ads, Zillow sells listings that enable agents to promote themselves in the areas they serve.            

With so many datasets available on the web and so many tools available to analyze the information, why couldn’t newspapers combine demographics, crime data, home prices, school scores, air pollution readings and other data to create neighborhood livability indexes? For inspiration (and free tools), take a look at the data-centric reports that ProPublica (www.propublica.org/tools/) has developed to explore education quality, dialysis mortality and much more.            

With the help of the Census Bureau, local business associations and companies like Pulse Research, publishers can capture data about commercial activity in their markets to track everything from the frequency of chiropractor visits to the volume of lawnmower sales. Beyond using this information to prod individual merchants to buy advertising, publishers or broadcasters can create trend reports that will appeal to consumers and businesses alike.            

To the extent local media companies become the leading data repositories in their communities, they will become indispensible to their readers and advertisers. That’s got to be good for their long-term franchise value.   

Alan D. Mutter is a former newspaper editor and Silicon Valley CEO who today serves as a strategic adviser to media and technology companies. He blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur (www.newsosaur.blogspot.com).

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