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Ken Doctor’s work centers on the transformation of consumer media in the digital age. He is the author of “Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get,” which has been translated into Mandarin Chinese, Korean and Portuguese. He contributes to his own website... More
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  • 12 Business-Building Lessons From Skift's Rafat Ali

    Rafat Ali is a tweener and twofer. He's both a journalist and an entrepreneur. He understands audiences and technologies. He knows the news business inside out and likes to spend lots of time in the world outside the news.

    Taking a couple of years to see the world (10 countries), the 38-year-old Ali is now on to Skift, a B2B business site that is getting lots of due attention given Ali's track record with Skift wasn't born out of his recent travels, says Ali, but informed by them.

    "Though the idea of Skift was not born out of my travels, the kind of places I went to were offbeat, and the information needs on those
    trips were higher than other more popular trips. To gather that information, I would have to resort to posting in forums on the web, like Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum. That made me realize the randomness involved in travel information, and with Skift, we're trying to take the randomness out of the equation, and make it more through news, information and data."

    Ali, a journalist, founded in 2002. for about $30 million, he sold it to Guardian Media in 2008, which re-sold it to GigaOm (where it seems to be finding a more congenial home) earlier this year. When Ali's first burst on the scene, it helped create a new view of emerging news+ industries, way ahead of actual "paid content."

    Now as CEO and co-founder of Skift, doing some curation, he's building out a new kind of business, in a vaster business sector. Travel, says Ali, is the largest employer in the world and is probably third in revenue behind finance and automotive. Lots of potential readers and advertisers.

    The site is itself, well-built out at launch is testimony to how much experience, clarity of vision and smart use of technology can accomplish in 2012. As such, it's worth extracting some lessons for everyone in the publishing trades from the Skift start-up. Here are 12:

    • Work your network. Ali put together $500,000 in seed money from those he'd met along the way, including the well-known and much-experienced Chris Ahearn, Gordon Crovitz, Jason Hirschorn, Tom Glocer, Luke Beatty, Peter Horan, Alan Meckler and Chris Schroeder. There are 17 angel investors overall. While the money contributed is small, their network of contacts is great.
    • Work the yin and the yang of the topic. Deep knowledge of a field is vital, and Ali's co-founder is Jason Clampet, a veteran of Frommer's, Citysearch and Rough Guides. Then, for Ali, coming at the topic with fresh eyes, could be a great complement.
    • Use technology to do the heavy lifting. NewsCred ("The newsonomics of syndication 3.0, from NewsCred and NewsLook to and Upworthy), a new mover in the text syndication, made it convenient and cheaper for Skift to get at lots of top-brand content (headed Reuters, AP, Guardian, Telegraph and Bloomberg) to run through his aggregating, curating technology. Ali estimates 30-40% of the site's content comes from NewsCred. Look for the addition of syndicated news video next, a natural for a travel product. Building on Wordpress, Skift has been able to use the technologies of the day to put out a substantial, first-look product with a staff of three. That should be a wake-up call for legacy companies saying they don't have enough staff to innovate well.
    • Pick your spots with original content. The "Skift Take" appears on most stories, right there at the top, at Twitter-like length, that tries to extract the meaning of a story in a few words. Down the road, socially sharing these tweet-like summations could become a powerful traffic driver for Skift. As importantly, says Ali, they define the attitude of the site. Attitude here is a key part of the Skift brand. "We will take positions," says Ali. Bringing an aggressive journalism to a B2B field could well shake it up.
    • Think crossover. Crossover here means both business-to-business and business-to-consumer audiences. The launch site is all B2B, but Ali will target professional travelers as well. Skift may find it tough to serve both audiences well with a single interface, but even the pairing of Skift Pro and Skift Road Warrior could pay lots of dividends. Much of the content and thinking is parallel, though the presentation to the two audiences will need to be markedly different.
    • Pick a business that is ad-rich. "The number is 50 times greater than my old company," reminding us of the relative smallness of the news and media industries. Just take the four main travel verticals he is planning to cover -- and tourism, hospitality, cruises and transport -- and the mind boggles.
    • But, don't depend on ads. With the domination of the ad trade by the Big Five digital ad companies (who control 67% of U.S. digital advertising, with their share increasing every year), the ad revenues for everyone else is increasingly uncertain, witness the flattening of digital ad revenues for newspaper companies this year. So, Ali is looking at data and its mastering as a lead revenue source. His key word is "services," meaning applying data and market intel to help vendors solve their own business problems.
    • Get the data for free, and transform it into intelligence. The government creates lots of data, sitting in government and semi-government repositories, in Excel and Word formats, and it's ready to be harvested. Think Everyblock for the travel business. Look for it to borrow a page from eMarketer and BusinessInsider, which both aggregate other data and putting it easy-to-read, easy-to-compare form.
    • Pre-qualify the business as tech-ready. As Ali points out, travel -- with booking and recommendation engines, and inventory management -- has had lots of technology applied to it for a long-time. Ali knows the data he plans to make his lead business is something travel enterprises already value, so if he can deliver data of value, it should be ready to be used.
    • Make simplicity out of chaos. Think about audience needs and what it needs. For instance, Ali mentions a travel app recommendation engine. The important notion, which we see repeatedly on the web: making simplicity out of chaos. There are many travel apps, many of which seem redundant, but which are best?
    • Make an industry more interesting. "How can you make travel boring?" Ali asks. Skift targets Travel Weekly or Aviation Weekly audiences in part, believing they are ripe for disruption. For newsies, think of the standing of Editor and Publisher 15 years ago, and its decimation by top news blogs. "We're trying to bring [to the topic] that energy, that conversational style that media, tech and finance [digital coverage] has. We want to connect the dots."
    • Don't get trapped. On reflection, Ali believes that "got trapped into doing some things for years and years, like in the dailiness of blog posts arranged in a certain manner, and a newsletter. I want to avoid that. That traps you into a model you can't get out of it." paidcontent struggled with what to cover on the "traditional" side of the business, as it focused on digital. His new site has departments, looking more like a magazine than a blog site, which should provide more flexibility. "We don't want to be called a blog media company; it's hard to scale."

    Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

    Aug 17 3:13 PM | Link | Comment!
  • The Newsonomics Of Syndication 3.0, From NewsCred And NewsLook To And Upworthy

    First published at Nieman Journalism Lab

    Of the many failed digital news dreams, digital syndication is one of the greatest enigmas. We've seen companies like Contentville, Screaming Media, and iSyndicate (Syndication 1.0) followed by companies like Mochila (Syndication 2.0), all believing the same thing: In the endless world of digital content, there must be a big business in gathering together some of the world's best, creating a marketplace, and selling stream upon stream.

    In the abstract, the idea makes lot of sense. Producers of content - AP, Reuters, Bloomberg, The Street, Al Jazeera, Getty Images, Global Post, and many more - want all the new revenue they can get. They want to see the content they produced used and reused, over and over again, helping offset the high cost of news creation. The enduring problem is the buy side. We've gone oh-so-quickly from Content is King to a content glut. In a world of endless ad inventory and plummeting ad rates, why take syndicated content just to create a greater glut of news, information, and ad spots? That dilemma still hangs in the wind, and has bedeviled news industry consortium startup NewsRight, as it tries to find a future. Yet I've been surprised by a new wave of news syndication that's been developing, here and there. It's worth paying attention to, because it tells us a lot about how the digital news world is developing.

    In part, it's about new niches being found and exploited. In part, it's about responding to deep staff cuts at many newspapers. In part, it's about a slow-dawning wave of new product creation, aided by the tablet. Each of the newer efforts sees the world a little differently, and that's instructive, though technology and video (see The Onion's "Onion Special Report: Blood-Drenched, Berserk CEO Demands More Web Videos") play increasingly key roles. So let's look at the newsonomics of Syndication 3.0, and a few of the newer entrepreneurs behind it.


    As 31-year-old CEO Shafqat Islam notes cheerily, finding investors for his startup was complicated by the fact that "there are a lot of dead bodies in this space." With 1,000 fairly top-drawer sources and a staff of 50 (35 of them in tech), NewsCred is the big new mover in text and still image syndication, launched earlier this year ("NewsCred wants to be the AP newswire for the 21st century"). Its 50-plus customers divide roughly equally into two groups: media and big brands.

    Media, says Islam, are using NewsCred for two reasons. One is to build new products, as the New York Daily News has done with its March-launched India news site, recognizing a locally under-served audience. Skift, Rafat Ali's new travel B2B start-up "12 Business-Building Lessons from Skift's Rafat Ali"), is getting 30 to 40 percent of its content through NewsCred. The other is the emergence of the paywall: Charging for digital access, he says, has meant some news companies are wanting to bulk up, offering a better value pitch to would-be digital subscribers. The Chicago Tribune launched a biz/tech "members only" product, powered by NewsCred, at the end of June.

    The brand use of news content has a bigger potential. Check out several case histories, showing the use Pepsi, Orange Telecom, and Lenovo has made of NewsCred-distributed entertainment and tech content. Brands are publishers and want an easy, one-source way to populate their sites. Islam says his seven sales people are working as consultants of a sort, especially with such brands. Figuring out how to create content experiences for brands-turned-publishers is one part of the syndication puzzle.

    Lessons Learned:

    • In a sense, this is syndication meets marketing services: As news companies both produce content and try to act as regional ad agencies, the synergies between the two are becoming more evident.
    • Timing is everything: We've seen a maturation in curation technologies, as metatagging gets easier and cheaper, allowing niched feeds. Then, an increased emphasis on niche product creation is combining with brand need for news content, creating new potential markets.

    With 70-plus top video news sources and 35 clients, the three-year-old NewsLook also hopes to build on the archeology of syndication ruin. Like NewsCred, it positions itself as a technology and curation company, adding value to a mass of content. For CEO Fred Silverman, the technology means, importantly, better integration of text and video content.

    "We see an awful lot of guys with a video page, or a video way down at the bottom - it's not integrated. Our push with the publishers we work with is to fluidly integrate it into a news page. You are eleven times more likely to watch that video if it is integrated into a story." That seems like common sense - put the words and pictures together - but Silverman's experience resonates way too deeply if you journey through news websites. For his part, he's been working on improving both NewsLook's own video metatagging and the ability to match that with text. Now he's got to convince more customers to make the integration.

    Using a license model - "we're not really an ad company" - NewsLook has found its customers in three segments. He sells to content aggregators like LexisNexis and Cengage, and he sells to news companies. It's the third area, though, vertical sites, that represent the biggest growth opportunity, especially in the tech area. NewsLook, with its video emphasis, is now partnering with text-centric NewsCred, looking for joint opportunities.

    Lessons Learned:

    • Think niche. Think video. Both have audiences that may be paying ones; video ad rates are still holding up far better than text.
    Deseret News Service and

    Clark Gilbert caused quite a stir when he took the reins at Utah's largest newspaper company two years ago ("Out of the Western Sky, It's a Hyperlocal, Worldwide Mormon Vertical"). Combining Harvard Business smarts, wide media knowledge, and traditional religious values, Gilbert promised to reshape the LDS-owned media Utah media properties in a way no one else could. Now, midway through that Utah transformation, he's also moving on a wider world of syndication. has launched. It's a movie guide like no other. Less Rotten Tomatoes and more wholesome salad, it is a "family media guide." It's social (Facebook login) with user-generated comments and ratings, and it offers many of the features (trailers, photos, theater times, online ticketing) that you'd expect. It's also just the beginning. will add TV listings, books, music, and other media to its site. Just syndicated, it so far has signed up a half-dozen customers.

    "We want to own the family brand," Gilbert says, citing his own commissioned research to indicate that it could be a large market. His segmentation of faith-based readers finds not only great dissatisfaction with the perceived amorality of Hollywood, but also questioning of the values of mainstream media.

    To address the latter market: the new Deseret News Service, a "values-oriented syndication service." That service, available for both print and digital, now reaches five markets, with a couple of dozen more on the horizon.

    Business models, like, Gilbert notes, include both straightforward license fees and revenue share models, with Deseret selling advertising.

    Gilbert, ever the modeler, believes Deseret is creating one for the industry.

    "If you look at the product strategy, we started with the newspaper. We knew we couldn't be good at everything…..For the Deseret News, that meant our six areas of emphasis [Family, Financial Responsibility, Values in Media, Education, Faith, and Care for the Poor]. For other newspapers, that can be something else. For Washington Post, it is politics. For Sarasota, it is retirement. What I've seen in the failure of the newspaper industry is that we've lost half our resources, but we're going to cover it all rather than having the rigor to say, 'What are we the best at?'

    "The web rewards deep expertise. You have a lot of newspapers with high cost structures, producing average commodity news. [We looked] at what can can be the best in the country at. That led to a national edition in print and now syndication."

    Lessons Learned:

    • Combine your values - editorial, religious, or whatever - with the best web tools of the day to satisfy currently unsatisfied audiences. Then scale.
    The AllMedia Platform

    Critical Media CEO Sean Morgan may be the last man standing whose career has spanned syndication from 1.0 through 3.0. A founder of Screaming Media, circa 1995, his Critical Media company has been building syndication and other products (media monitor Critical Mention, video capture and creation platform Syndicaster, news video licensor Clip Syndicate) since 2002. Now, his company has produced AllMedia. Its primary function: a platform allowing clients "to collect and curate user-generated video content from their online communities." It's another component of its analytics-based enterprise business.

    Morgan's play here is wider than syndication, but syndication plays a key role. Critical Media's technologies offer publishers (and others) value. In return, Critical gets the right to license news video assets, and it has amassed three million of them, and 100,000 are being added monthly; 350 (200 newspaper; 150 broadcast) local media companies are participating in Critical products. Clip Syndicate, its news video product, isn't yet well promoted, but when it is, it could be powerful. It already enables "grab a channel" functionality for licensees. Clip Syndicate operates on a 50/50 revenue share model, with Morgan saying he is getting $21.40 CPM rates. The goal: monetize the "the biggest news video archive."

    Lessons Learned:

    • Syndication may be a long-term proposition, taking years of building infrastructure, or partnering with those who do.
    • It's not the content - it's the metadata about the content that unlocks its value, allowing niching and enabling product creators and editors to find what they need.
    California Watch

    Now incorporating content from its Bay Citizen merger, California Watch continues to expand out its syndication business. Executive director Robert Rosenthal estimates the news startup will take in about $750,000 this year in licensing money, funding about 10 percent of its budget ("The newsonomics of the death and life of California news"). California Watch offers yearly, monthly, and à la carte sales.

    Its model really is the old-fashioned media wire, vastly updated with multimedia at the core and a strong enterprise journalism emphasis. With 16 significant media partnersthroughout California, just adding NBC Bay Area and including big TV stations and newspapers, it has been able to double some of the prices it charges over time. Further, it's on the verge of syndicating to a major national/global news player. "Don't silo potential audience by geography. A good story from a neighborhood in San Francisco may be the top story on the Internet one day," Rosenthal says.

    Like a traditional wire, its value is in more than its stories. It also acts as a news budget or tipsheet for subscribing news editors. With one of the largest news contingents in the state capital, Sacramento, for instance, it helps drive coverage overall.

    Lessons Learned:

    • Collaboration with customers creates utility as well as content itself - and cements financial relationships.
    • Syndicated content, here, works on the older concept of scale: Do it once and distribute to many, without the burden of legacy costs and constraints.

    Upworthy is like Hollywood Squares for progressives. No Whoopi Goldberg, but nine rectangles of meaningful video, well described by the Times' David Carr.

    Launched in March. It's an on-ramp for Facebook, feeding the kinds of videos it prizes into the social sphere with headlining that would make a tabloid editor proud. Founder Eli Pariser (of and author of The Filter Bubble) says he borrowed headlining techniques from Slate, which he says writes "the best headlines on the web," without slavishly pointing at Google search engine optimization. (Examples: "Donald Trump Has Pissed Off Scotland" and "How a 6-Year-Old With Ignorant Parents Just Became the Best Republican Presidential Candidate").

    Its declaration defines its would-be audience: "At best, things online are usually either awesome or meaningful, but everything on has a little of both. Sensational and substantial. Entertaining and enlightening. Shocking and significant. That's what you can expect here: No empty calories. No pageview-juking slideshows. No right-column sleaze. Just a steady stream of the most irresistibly shareable stuff you can click on without feeling bad about yourself afterwards."

    Upworthy is really syndication simplified. It uses the social sphere to see content re-used. Its currency isn't licensing fees; no money changes hands in its viral promotion of content. Currently, its single revenue source is referral fees it gets from progressive organizations that pay it on a cost-per-acquisition basis for traffic.

    Lessons Learned:

    • People - many, many people - will do the syndication for you if you learn the tricks and trades of headlining, SEO, and the social rumble. While Upworthy's referral-fee business model may have limited extension, its use of social to extend syndication (perhaps with sponsorships) can be used by others.

    Consider Syndication 3.0 a puzzle, with more of the parts found but the full picture still incomplete. Technology, as in all things digital, plays a midwife role, but understanding customer use - and helping would-be customers imagine use - is fundamental. Let's face it: Costly content creation must be paid for somehow, as ad revenues falter and reader revenues build slowly. Making more use of the content that has been created makes basic sense, and the basics of that business are being built out anew.

    Aug 17 3:10 PM | Link | Comment!
  • BBC's Mark Thompson Jumps Out Of The Frying Pan And Into The New York Times Cauldron

    Now, we don't know for sure, but, maybe, in the New York Times' CEO job description was this line: "Proven battle scars with Rupert Murdoch a plus."

    That's just of many key attributes Mark Thompson, who recently stepped down as BBC Director General, will bring to his new post as NYT Co. CEO in November. The 54-year-old Thompson, who served for a very long eight years in the BCC post, butted horns with Murdoch, publicly and privately. Murdoch, of course, saw the BCC as big competition - and it is, dominating the British news landscape in ways that are difficult for Americans to understand. Murdoch aimed at those government-mandated licensing fees - taxes, as we would call them - that pay for the BBC. He wanted them changed, lowered and/or diverted, for reasons both business and political, the News Corp strategic m.o.

    Thompson dodged, weaved, cut when he had to and preserved - according to UK conventional wisdom - the BBC's heart through many tribulations.

    We could also argue that the BBC and the NYT are cousins across the sea. Two august, truly global news institutions, the Cokes and Pepsis of the news world in brand awareness. Both are immensely powerful, sometimes comically balkanized in their decision-making, too often lumbering in execution, and yet both have made major strides in transitioning their power and work to the digital age. Both are very much works-in-progress.

    So Thompson brings the experience at moving, too slowly for some, too dramatically for others, a huge entity. Just as he knows, deep in his marrow, the value of the BBC to the Britain, he gets the vital role of the Times in the U.S. - and increasingly globally. ("The Newsonomics of the British Invasion")

    It struck me that as the digital circulation plans of the Times went live, it has been finding a global paying audience, somewhere around 10% of those half a million digital subs. The global imperative is basic math. In Britain, Thompson served 1% of the world's population. In the U.S., the Times serves 5%. The growth potential of both - especially in a world where close to a billion people can understand English - is huge. Out-of-country expansion, to gain new readers and advertisers, isn't easy, but Thompson is one of the few potential CEOs who has it.

    Add this checkmark: video. The BBC moved through a number of iterations of its iPlayer, but now that video player is a dominant one, and beyond print. Among those embracing video: that Murdoch company across town, the Wall Street Journal, fast becoming the jewel of the to-be-spun-off new news NewsCorp.

    Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

    Aug 17 3:05 PM | Link | Comment!
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