Morning Consult is making data journalism pay

Over the weekend, news leaked that former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is considering a run for the presidency. While most sites rushed to publish hot takes on The New York Times scoop, upstart data publisher Morning Consult dug into the numbers.

The site polled 1,500 registered voters on what they thought the chances would be that Bloomberg could pull off a successful presidential run. The site used the data to produce an original story about the results  — it found that Bloomberg still has ways to go with most voters –and by Monday, those numbers made their way into coverage by The Wall Street Journal, NBC News, Politico and other outlets.

“We think there’s a huge opportunity to marry a media company with technology focused on public opinion polling,” said Morning Consult CEO Michael Ramlet. “From just a content perspective, this gives our newsroom data that no one else has.”

The experience is the epitome of 2-year-old Morning Consult’s model, which treats data not as an offshoot but the core of everything it does. Morning Consult has a 16-person editorial team that produces 20 to 25 original stories a week, the most enterprising of which are informed by its original data. The company has 33 staffers overall, double its numbers from a year ago. And it has succeeded in attracting talent: its director of polling was a data scientist at canvassing organization Working America, and it counts ex-National Journal and Washington Post staffers on its editorial staff.

“Data-driven journalism is the new hot thing. It’s a burgeoning field,” said Peter Kreisky, founder of Kreisky Media Consultancy, who compared Morning Consult’s approach to similar data-driven efforts at FiveThirtyEight and The Upshot. But the business model around the approach is still unproven. “As to Morning Consult scaling the model and competing effectively, the jury’s out,” he said.

Where Morning Consult aims to differentiate is in its focus. The site’s core readers are the 3,000 or so key decision-makers in Washington D.C. and across the U.S. That focus limits its reach to only few hundred thousand readers a month, but it’s also what helps it justify charging companies nearly $13,000 for a week of a spots in its six email newsletters, which together reache just over 200,000 people.

The bulk of the site’s money comes from its custom polls. Morning Consult raised just $30,000 in mid-2013 and pulled in $5.5 million so far, thanks largely to the custom poll it creates alongside brands. The site has already found over 75 of big-name brands and trade associations to work with on these polls, which it sells for $33,750 a price. Pandora, for example, worked with the site to poll people on what they thought about paying for music. Charter Communications, which announced plans to merge with Time Warner Cable last year, sponsored a poll to gauge popular opinion of the deal. Morning Consult is building that original polling data into Morning Consult Intelligence, a free service that lets users search datasets from 500 polling and media organizations. The idea is to eventually turn this into a paid product.

“We’re going after elite audiences rather than mass audiences. It’s hard to go for the scale of something like Vox unless you have the right kind of venture capital funding,” Ramlet said. But the site aims to be more than just a media company. The media-meets-original data model is one that has become more popular among media companies looking for a business model beyond advertising. CBInights has chased the model with data about private companies and venture capital. Greentech Media is building a similar product in the energy space.

Morning Consult, while focused on politics wonks, is eyeing a similarly “We’re-D.C.-based-but-not-locked-to-D.C.” approach, said Ramlet. “I care as much about the key people on Wall Street and at the big companies as I do about policymakers. We’re aiming nation-wide.”