Q&A: What’s behind the editorial strategy at Skift
Longtime business journalist Tom Lowry was hired as managing editor of Skift, a media company focused on the business of wellness, travel and restaurants, earlier this year. It operates websites, conducts research, holds conferences and publishes newsletters.
Lowry oversees a growing team of reporters, working closely with a research division and participating in Skift’s global conferences business. Skift was co-founded six years ago by Rafat Ali, formerly of PaidContent, and Jason Clampet, formerly of Frommer’s.
Lowry was former senior editor of CNBC.com before leaving in 2017. He joined CNBC in April 2013 to build an enterprise news desk. He previously was business editor of The Daily, senior editor at Variety and media editor at BusinessWeek. He also worked at USA Today and the New York Daily News. He also currently teaches at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.
Lowry spoke with Talking Biz News by email about Skift and its strategy. What follows is an edited transcript.
What was your interest in joining Skift earlier this year?
Three factors, really. I have known Rafat (Skift founder Rafat Ali) since his PaidContent days, and I respected his record and ambition.
I was intrigued by the re-emerging journalism models of going niche, going narrow and going deep in a subject area. Before I decided to join, I consulted with two friends who made similar moves: Martin Peers, formerly of the Wall Street Journal and now the ME for The Information, and Rick Berke, who worked at The New York Times and who is now the executive editor of health care news site STAT. Both of them said: Why would you not take this job?
And finally, I caught a bit of the entrepreneurial bug helping to build the iPad publication The Daily at News Corp. and then the enterprise desk for digital at CNBC. Skift offered me a chance to play an even bigger role in growing its business while working with a team doing great journalism on a global stage. The qualified circulation model is really the only guaranteed money-maker in journalism these days, and Rafat and Jason (co-founder Jason Clampet) get that, and have built an incredible business around it. I’ve worked over the years at some pretty successful media brands — Daily News, USA Today, BusinessWeek, Variety, CNBC. I was ready to join something with Skift’s sensibilities — which actually means transformation in Nordic languages.
Why is travel/restaurant/airline coverage important to business readers?
Travel often has the first window onto swings in the world economy, and on world events and crises. Because of that, travel is a proxy for other businesses in how it is impacted, and how it responded. Travel and tourism really is an enormous industry that we often overlook and discount — by some estimates, contributing $8 trillion a year to global GDP.
How big is the staff, and what types of stories does Skift focus on? How many stories do you run each week?
By year’s end, we will have nearly 60 people at Skift overall. On the edit side, I have about a dozen or so editors and reporters. We just hired an Asia editor, and plan to hire our second person in Europe next year along with some other hires. We also have a growing freelance network across the globe.
We don’t have story quotas, but we produce between 20 to 30 original original stories a week. We put out more than 20 newsletters a week, two daily for U.S. and Europe and Asia combined, and then specialty newsletters focused on topics like business travel, loyalty and airlines. We do video, podcasts, several print magazines a year, columns, deep dive stories, a quarterly call with our readers. We did a digital book this summer. Our multimedia is off the charts.
Who are your core readers, and how do you attract them?
It runs the range of decision makers in the business of travel, so everyone from the CEOs of the big hotel chains and online travel agencies, to the heads of the airline pilots’ unions to the manager of a local travel agency. I also encourage my friends who love to travel to read Skift to better understand the businesses where they spend a lot of their money. So I don’t see Skift’s appeal strictly as B2B. Word-of-mouth is big for getting people hooked on Skift. The newsletters are huge, and our growing conference business — we will host five forums worldwide in 2019 – is a great way to promote Skift. All this gets wrapped in great design. People love the look and feel of Skift.
Who do you see as your main competitors?
Of course, the global travel trades, but also the bigger international media, too, which have beats dedicated to the travel industry. Anybody at those places who wants to have conversation? Ping me.
Where do you see Skift expanding its coverage in the next few years?
We are already deep in with travel, but we want to go deeper. We want to cover travel agents in a richer way. Eastern Europe is ripe for broader coverage. I don’t want to tip our hand too much, but those are good examples. Beyond that, we have Skift Table, which covers the business of restaurants, and we just launched Skift Wellness. So we have been very smart about launching adjacencies covering businesses where people are spending most of their disposable income.
What was behind the acquisition of Airline Weekly?
We have outstanding aviation coverage anchored by Brian Sumers, but this subscription newsletter is a must-read across the airline industry, from C-suites to the union shops. We can bring a Skift sensibility to the newsletter that will make it even more essential. I am excited to have these guys on board.
Where does Skift’s revenue come from?
Three buckets. Advertising, much of that coming from our branded content arm SkiftX; subscription proprietary research reports, and ticket sales and sponsorships for our conferences. Let me tell you, you sleep a lot easier with this business model. It’s so refreshing to not have to be beholden solely to the gut-wrenching swings in the ad market.
Do you see more paid content in its future like Airline Weekly? How so?
I do. We have had success selling our own research on a tiered subscription model. And let me tell how great it is as a journalist to have your own internal research division. So we know people will pay for Skift’s insights. As they will do now with Airline Weekly. If I know Rafat and Jason, this is just the beginning.
How does Skift stand out in a crowded business news field?
We stay deeply focused on our industries. We don’t let ourselves to ever become a churn-and-burn traffic operation. We don’t wed ourselves to any one platform. And we bring Skift’s unique, smart and fierce take to everything we do. Distinguishing your brand in journalism these days is hard as hell, but Skift has defied the odds by making itself necessary to its audiences.