Quartz, a web-only business publication, just turned one year old. On both editorial and business dimensions, Quartz features all components of a modern media venture. Is this a formula for the long run? To answer the question, in the first of two articles, we take a closer look at the editorial product.
Quartz (qz.com) is the kind of media most business writers would love to be part of. It’s smart, fun, witty, basic and sophisticated at the same time. Like Jony Ive design at Apple, its apparent simplicity is the combined product of deep thought and of a series of bold moves by its owner, the Atlantic Media group, publisher of the eponymous monthly. From all standpoints, content, organization or even business model, Quartz came up with innovations (see the Monday Note I wrote for the launch in September 2012).
Ten days ago, my phone interview with editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney, started with a discussion of his newsroom of 25 writers and editors. On Tuesday September 24 at 9pm Paris Time, Quartz had this piece at the top of its infinite scroll:
Editorially, this epitomizes (in a way) what Quartz is about: topics addressed through well-defined angles (in this case, the idea that if Amazon hit large book retailers hard, it didn’t have much impact on small independent bookstores.) The story was short but right to the point — taking the opposite side of the now worn tale of Amazon devastating the book-selling landscape. To illustrate his piece, instead of using yet another photograph of Jeff Bezos haranguing a crowd, the writer picked this weird image of a girl showing off at a bookstore event.
Yes, at Quartz, journalists are the ones who get to select the pictures that go with their article. Most of the time, this yields better audience numbers.
Actually, explains Kevin Delaney, the staff is supposed to produce a complete package, ready to be processed by editors, with links, headline, photos (lifted from Reuters, Getty, AP or sometime the Creative Commons trove) properly cropped and adjusted. Everything is done within a WordPress interface, chosen for its versatility, but also because most journalists already know to use it. As for headlines (the task usually handled by editors), the Quartz newsroom relies on team chats to quickly and collaboratively work on pieces.
The same goes for graphics like in this snapshot of Tweeter’s IPO prospectus, a part of the magazine’s comprehensive coverage of the upcoming event. To further encourage the use of graphics and charts in stories,
Quartz engineering director Michael Donohoe (a NYT alumni) ChartBuilder, a bespoke, easy to use tool. [Correction : as pointed out by Quartz’global news editor Gideon Lichfield, ChartBuilder has been developed by David Yanofsky, one of Quartz journalist/coder/data hackers…] As an internet-native company, Quartz threw its software in the open-source world (see how it looks in Github) — an unthinkable move in the close-to-the-vest legacy media world…
While listening to Delaney describing his organization, I couldn’t help but mentally itemize what separates its super-agile setup from traditional media. A couple of months ago, I met the digital management of a major UK newspaper. There, execs kept whining about the slow pace evolution of the news staff and the struggle to get writers to add links and basic metadata (don’t even think about pix or graphics) to their work product. By and large, most legacy media I know of, in France, UK and the United States, are years behind swift boats such as Quartz, Politico or the older but still sharp Slate.
I used to think the breadth and depth of older large newsrooms could guarantee their survival in a digital world plagued by mediocrity and loose ethics. But considering great pure players like Quartz — which is just the latest offspring of a larger league — I now come to think we are witnessing the emergence of a new breed of smaller, digital-only outlets that are closing the gap, quality-wise, with legacy media. In the context of an increasingly segmented and short-on-time readership, I can only wonder how long the legacy newsroom’s strategic advantage of size and scope will last.
Quartz editorial staff has nothing to do with the low-paid, poultry farm newsrooms of many digital outlets. Most of the 25 journalists and editors (out a staff of 50) were drawn from well established brands such as Bloomberg, The Economist, Reuters, New York Magazine or The Wall Street Journal (Kevin Delaney, 41, is himself a former WSJ.com managing editor). “Our staff is slightly younger than the average newsroom, and it is steeped in the notion of entrepreneurial journalism”, says the Quartz editor-in-chief. “With Quartz, we had many opportunity to rethink the assumptions of traditional media”.
The original idea was to devise how The Economist would look like if it had been born in 2012 rather than in 1843, explains Delaney. It would be digital native, mostly for mobile reading, and focus on contemporary economic engines such as digital, globalization, e-commerce, the future of energy, debt, China, etc. Instead of abiding by the usual classification of business news that looks like a nomenclature from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Industry, Services, Markets, Trade, etc.), Quartz opted for a sexier taxonomy; its coverage is based on an evolving list of “Obsessions“, a much more cognitive-friendly way to consider the news cycle than the usual “beat” (read this on the matter). As an avid magazine reader, Delaney said he derived the idea from publications like New York Magazine.
The challenge is connecting this categorization to audience expectations… Hence the importance of the social reverberation of Quartz treatments. They translate into stunning numbers: according to Kevin Delaney, 85% to 90% of its traffic is “earned” and social referrals account 50% of the site’s traffic. In other words, the traffic coming from people typing http://qz.com in their browser accounts for only 10-15% of the volume. To put things in perspective, on a legacy media site, social traffic weighs about 5% — in some rare cases 10% — and around 40% to 50% of the pages views are generated via the home page.
Since the site is nothing else but an infinite rolling page of stories, there is no classic jumping board home page. Another obsession of Quartz founders: “We wanted to minimize friction and encourage readers to share our stories. We designed the site first for tablets, then for mobile and as a classic website, in that order,” insists Kevin Delaney. No apps in sight, but a site built in HTML5 and responsive design that adjusts to screen size. At first, the no-app choice sounded weird for a media aimed at a mobile audience, but considering the rising costs and complexity of building, managing, and maintaining native apps on multiple platforms, a single HTML design was probably the best approach.
I’m not through talking about Quartz. Next week, we’ll examine the venture’s business aspects, its bold ways of dealing with advertising.