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April 27, 2010, 11 a.m.

Iraq Oil Report borrows a page from the Economist Intelligence Unit, offers premium research service

As news organizations search for new revenue streams, their focus has sometimes shifted from a mass audience to smaller niches. And nothing’s more niche than an audience of one.

Iraq Oil Report, which debuted in December 2009 as a paid-only news site, now brings in 30 percent of its revenue by selling valuable information to a select clientele. The research model — perhaps most closely associated with The Economist’s Intelligence Unit — may ruffle the feathers of journalists who view their work as inherently public, but it may also be the beginnings of a sustainable business model for certain kinds of reporting.

In the case of Iraq Oil Report — which we wrote about here — corporations or other interested parties can ask a specific question about Iraq. Iraq Oil Report’s staff will then report out the story, as they would for the site. Reporters are not functioning as consultants or analysts, so they are not providing strategic recommendations.

The Economist Intelligence Unit offers a range of products, including research, analysis, and forecasting in countries all over the world, including custom research. If that sounds similar to Iraq Oil Report’s approach, you won’t be surprised to learn that its vice president of business development, Peter Suomi, ran the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Asia division before getting his MBA and then joining Iraq Oil Report.

Suomi told me the difference between The Economist and Iraq Oil Report is scale. EIU is all over the globe, offering information and analysis on myriad countries and topics. Iraq Oil Report is a small shop, with three full-time reporters and editors in Baghdad, plus about a dozen stringers in provinces around the country. Suomi’s biggest concern as he grows the division is whether he will continue to have the resources to deliver what clients want. (He said it’s also a matter of marketing and letting clients know the service is available.)

Here’s a hypothetical example from the site’s editor, Ben Lando. A client submits a question: “What are the political problems facing the Basra council?” Lando would figure out how many reporters are needed, and then that team would gather the information and file a report to the company. “It’s basically the same work, doing reporting,” Lando said.

According to Iraq Oil Report’s marketing materials, areas of research include:

— Industry overviews – oil, natural gas, and more
— Briefs on political events and security issues
— Market entry assessments
— Due diligence on local partners and key players
— Monitoring and translation of local media in Iraq
— Immediate responses to urgent questions

Suomi would not put a public price tag on the service, saying it varies tremendously depending on the scale of the project and the resources involved. A huge project might require hiring a separate project manager just to oversee the work. There are also costs involved in taking reporters off their daily beats. Iraq Oil Report determines what it will cost to do the work, adds a profit margin, and then submits the proposal to a potential client.

“The hope is that down the road that we’ll be able to build experts in various aspects,” Suomi said.

POSTED     April 27, 2010, 11 a.m.
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