Quartz’s visual journalism push now seems more commonplace. The site not only uses charts often to tell its stories, it has open-sourced its Chartbuilder tool, with wide usage among other media.
Even though the majority of readers don’t use the obsessions taxonomy that much — guess what, they like to scroll — it’s both a guidepost for its staff and a high-profile branding that says prominently that Quartz is a thinking person’s business news site. That staff now numbers 25 full-time journalists, up from 17 at launch.
Delaney got to pick his staff. Stop there: As I talk with news-change people in both legacy and startup operations, that ability to pick a staff is huge. It connects with the overused word “culture”: In hiring, editors like Delaney not only get a chance to find the talents, digital sensibilities, and storytelling chops they want — they get to build their culture through hires. Any newsroom, new or old, has its issues, but a new, well chosen, well paid one can spend so much more time on the work and so much less time on the “change.” For legacy companies, a key question is how to emulate that kind of environment, ASAP. Take a tour of Quartz’ journalists and you can see a wide-range of skills, humor — and potential. Those qualities show, subtly, in Quartz’ stories.
The “obsessions,” of course, are just a foundation. It’s the voice of Quartz — serious, pointed, and yet casual — that gives it a personality. Delaney credits global news editor Gideon Lichfield, who came to Quartz after 16 years at The Economist, with establishing that style. “It’s hard to express,” says Delaney, “but it’s conversational, global, digital, and smart. Treat readers’ time well. Above all, don’t talk down to the readers. And don’t take yourself too seriously.” The effort, that serious casual, borrows much from what we’ve all learned in last 20 years on the news web. Often, it works quite well; less often, you can find yourself midway through a story and wondering why you’re still reading. Throughout, you get the sense that these are journalists grappling for answers on big issues and little, much as their readers are.
Quartz, at its best, zags when the competition zigs. Whether it’s the coverage of the next Netflix (“The track-changes version of Netflix’s vision for the future of TV”), contrarian advice (“Forget about learning to code — to get rich in tech, become an accountant”), or real estate comparisons (“How many houses can you buy elsewhere for the price of one in London?”) — chartified, of course — readers are unlikely to think they’ve seen Quartz’s take on current stories in other places.
We can see Quartz as part of that larger movement toward explainer journalism. What does Delaney think about the explainer wave? As The Wall Street Journal veteran he is (having left as WSJ.com managing editor to start Quartz), he takes a longer view than most: “News organizations — including Quartz — have been explaining what the news means for awhile.”
Yet the Quartz sensibility is now a cousin of everything from the new NYT Now to Circa to Inside.com to Yahoo News Digest, as everyone moves on to the coming majority-mobile opportunity. Explainer journalism, of course, isn’t only about mobile, but the its rediscovery coincides with this new mobile age.
My sense is that this great flowering (and great hype) around explainer journalism will soon be absorbed into the wider changes in how news is created and consumed. Though the names starting sites have drawn disproportionate attention, a kind of within-the-house celebrity journalism, we’re still talking about only dozens or hundreds of journalists hired. Almost all seem focused on an American intelligentsia, albeit an intelligentsia that’s highly attractive to advertisers and in its willingness — given the right proposition — to attend a conference or buy a subscription or become a member.
At this point among the contenders — Atlantic Media’s The Wire, Quartz, Slate, Vox, FiveThirtyEight, and sites that may tumble out of First Look Media, to name just a few — we’re beginning to see a kind of Darwinian competition. Even the intelligentsia only has so much time and will make choices. I loved The Upshot’s spare story and great visualization of “Up Close on Baseball’s Borders”). But FiveThirtyEight’s 773 words and a scatterplot on “Do April Showers Bring May Flowers?” exceeded my wonk quotient; I’d rather see the answer to the latter in one of Larry Kramer’s restyled USA Today graphics.
While social referrals are an essential nutrient for all these newer sites, one important metric to watch over the next 24 months will be how much their direct traffic increases. What Quartz and its competitors are now fighting for is new habitual readers. They want to encourage daily check-in; they want to be on the first screen of our smartphones.
Where does Quartz go from here? It’s got new competition, but its business niche helps distinguish it from the newer explainer sites, as does its 19-month lead in gaining attention. Is it really a business site? Well, yes, but it travels well beyond the edges of business, and, interestingly, does it in ways different from what sites such as Business Insider and Forbes do. Clearly, “business” is a good category to claim, but how you then work its edges will make a lot of difference in how well you can really monetize your audience.
Quartz will need to find continued growth. The events strategy is a key to that. It will bring in about 10 percent of Quartz’ revenue in Quartz Events’ first full year of operation. Overall, Atlantic Media brings in 20 percent of all its revenue from events, so Quartz should have headroom there.
Then there’s that elusive question of reader revenue. Though Quartz’ native ad innovation is impressive, and related events revenue will help, all the new sites find a common question: how to balance their revenue streams over the longer term. Without a legacy print publication that people are used to paying for (like Quartz’s parent/cousin The Atlantic), how do you pry payment out of readers? Slate is the latest to try a new tack there, with its new membership program.
Will Quartz test similar waters? Not soon. “Right now, we embrace the open web, full stop,” says Lauf.
And then there’s the question of where Atlantic Media will next go. The company has hired well, in both executive and journalistic ranks. It ranks “culture” as one of its foundational values, putting it on the top navigation of its site. Owner David Bradley showed the industry how a company born in 1857 could be reshaped into a leading digital/print publisher. Now, he must decide on his next generation of leadership, and how much Atlantic Media will continue to be a serial product launcher (Defense One is the latest, launched a year ago) and how much it’ll become a buyer or a seller.