Before Quartz became a device-morphing business site and the buzz of online journalism circles, it was a blank canvas. That’s an enviable position these days, particularly if you’ve got the backing of Atlantic Media and a staff pulled together from places like The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, The Economist, and The New York Times. Looking out at the media landscape today, Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney and his team decided the path to success and a broad readership involved two things: Being free, and being readable on just about anything with a screen.
In his letter to readers on launch day, Delaney wrote, “What is the best way to build a global news organization in 2012? With your help, we’ll figure it out.” Delaney told me one of the ways to do that is through the power of the open web, not restricting access to content behind a paywall or being in an app store. This is something he has a little experience with, having previously worked as managing editor of the mostly paywalled WSJ.com.
But if Quartz isn’t going to charge for its work and isn’t available in newsstands or app stores, how will they find their audience? I spoke with Delaney about the virtue of being mobile-friendly for business readers, how Quartz plans to use comments to engage readers, and how the site wants to innovate in advertising as well as editorial. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
Justin Ellis: One of the things you guys have talked about is wanting to be essential, something your readers will want to check in on every day. How do you do that?
We’re really focused on making Quartz an essential read. Our target is global business professionals — so readers who are on the move, but also know they need to know what’s going on in the global economy.
For many of these people, there’s effectively one economy that stretches around the world and affects their businesses and their lives. So what we’re doing is providing them with the essential information they need to know at a digital rhythm and on any digital device they happen to have on hand.
The way we become an essential read is through smart analysis of the key macro questions affecting the global business professional, using a digital platform that is available to them, whether they’re on their mobile phone, their iPad, their desktop.
Ellis: What if this global business professional speaks Chinese or Japanese? Are you guys going to be looking into translation?
Delaney: Our goal was to get out in English first, but we would love to expand to other languages. I would be surprised if we didn’t do that sometime in the future. We’re looking to reach a real international readership, and at the beginning it will be readers who are international but speak English. But our ambitions extend beyond that.
Ellis: What you think the voice of Quartz should be, in terms of the writing?
“Our content is made to share. That, I believe is the most effective distribution you have possible.”
It’s a really interesting question, and I think the answer to that will evolve over time. One of my colleagues here told me this morning her mother told her that what she liked about Quartz was that we respected our readers. I think that partly gets at the answer to your question. Which is to say we want to be as creative and smart as possible.We want to respect our readers, be analytical, and funny where possible. But we don’t need to be gratuitously snarky or flip.
I think the voice that we’re going for is one that is smart, journalistic, and internationally-minded, but at the same time accessible and creative.
Ellis: You aren’t on a print newsstand and you’re not in an app store. How are people going to find Quartz?
We very consciously constructed Quartz so that it will thrive on the free and open web. I think it’s as great a time as ever to build a new journalistic product, a new media organization. And the reason is that you make yourself open to the web.
We’re a free product; we don’t have a paywall; we do not have registration walls; we don’t actually have the wall of someone having to go into an app store to download us. Our content is made to share. That, I believe is the most effective distribution you have possible. So the imperative that creates for us is one that I’m excited about, which is to create good and interesting content.
And we’ve structured it so that, if we succeed with that, this will be shared, and if someones shares it and their friends like it, they’ll share it as well. The other thing is that the site is architected to work on different devices, so you don’t have to install an app on different devices — you can go and use the site on whatever you have at hand.
It’s been just a couple of days, but some folks have had trouble with the UI of Quartz
, and some are wondering if there are bugs that need to be fixed. Are there things you guys are still working out, or is this a new type of experience that readers will have to get used to?
Delaney: We built Quartz and view the launch as a start of what we’re going to do. We optimized it for tablet, for iPhone, and then for desktop. When you’re building an HTML5 app, you can run into compatibility issues in supporting every single browser and device in the world. We’ve put it out so that it works well on our primary platforms, and we’ve released updates to the site that make it work better on additional browsers and platforms. Our technology approach is ambitious, but we’re also working very hard now that it’s out to make sure that everyone possible can experience our site in the fullest way possible.
Ellis: Any initial observations from your stats that you guys are seeing that are surprising? Are people looking at it primarily on their phones or on their tablets? What can you tell me?
Delaney: One thing I’ve been really encouraged by, just in the early days, is the geographic spread of our readership. I don’t know off-hand the numbers for our total traffic breakdown by country, but there was a moment [Tuesday] in our first full morning where I looked at Chartbeat, which we’re using for real-time analytics, and 40 percent of our traffic was coming from the US and the rest was spread other places in the world. A big chunk of it was from Europe, but there also was some traffic from Asia as well. I was really encouraged by that because I thought it demonstrated some success in being really open to the web from day one and having a global readership, which was really our goal with the project.
One of the things folks have noticed is that at this point there’s no comments on stories. That’s something that’s a debate about in journalism circles. But we did notice Zach mentioned on Twitter
that you guys are cooking something up for comments. Could you give me an idea what that is?
We felt that the current commenting systems on most websites weren’t especially satisfying. I know Nick Denton at Gawker and others share this view and are trying to get their heads around a solution to it. So we have designed a way for readers to effectively comment, but it’s a different interface. And we will be rolling that out sometime in the future.
We’re committed to commenting but believe that there’s an opportunity to change the form — the user interface may be the best way to put it — for commenting. And I think we have something innovative to do there that we’re continuing to build and we’ll roll out over time.
Ellis: Quartz already has an API. I’m wondering what opportunities you think that presents.
There are two primary advantages of having an open API. The first is it actually makes your own development easier. So if you have an open API, your own developers can use it, play with it, and you can build things on it. The second advantage is you have your content out in the broader world and allow other people to do things with it you might not have time or have thought of.
A good example of how this has been done is with The New York Times API. One of my favorite applications of it is the mashup of the New York Times starred critics film reviews and the Netflix on-demand catalog. We don’t know what the specific applications could be for Quartz content that are similar to that, but our strong preference is to make that available from day one and see what happens.
Something we’ve been talking about here is how fluid your obsessions
will be. They sound like something that is meant to change from time to time. Will they change every month, two months, five minutes? How do you determine that?
I think that there’s an imperative to rethink how advertising is handled, and I think sponsored content is an interesting approach to it.
Delaney: The idea for obsessions
stemmed from our observation that really good blogs and magazines have what we think of as defining obsessions, and these obsessions change over time.
We’ve gone out with a number of things our news staff is focused on and obsessed with. Our expectation is that they change with some frequency. We haven’t explicitly noted this to the reader, but we talk about having some major obsessions and some that are more minor. So I think there are some major obsessions that will probably be more consistent over time, although they could change as well.
In terms of the time frame we might obsess about something, we haven’t quite gotten there yet. But we’re active in our news meetings talking about obsessions and what candidates for obsessions are. We have a list of obsessions we haven’t developed enough to go out with them from day one. But we have a high degree of confidence that we will essentially promote these to obsessions in our navigation and in terms of reporting focus pretty quickly. We see them as important macro-judgments about what is important to our readers.
Ellis: Your sponsored content didn’t seem very prominent in some places at launch, and in some places it looked like there was a banner ad on top, “Sponsored by Chevron” or something like that. How does the placement of these play into whether they are clicked on or noticed? And are display ads going to be a big part of what you’re doing?
We definitely wanted to innovate in terms of what we offer advertisers in the same way we wanted to innovate with our journalism and our product. So we have two forms of advertising. One is what the ad sales people call “engage,” and that’s a display ad that fills the bulk of the content well when you encounter it. It’s similar to a full-page ad in a newspaper, or magazine, in terms of being big and in the reading space, but it looks like a glossy advertisement. In our case its been adapted so that you can play videos and can swipe and look at photos, so that it’s touchable when you’re on your phone or iPad, and responsive to the device you are using.
The other form of ads is sponsored content, and you encounter them in the list of headlines, and if you click on them you go into an article that is written and provided by a sponsor. No editorial staff ever has anything to do with that. We wanted to make it pretty clear that this was different from our editorial content. You mention that it looks like there is a banner ad. One of our decisions was there should be a sponsor logo there, and by having the sponsor logo on the content it would help make clear that this was coming from the sponsor. Our expectation is that the sponsors create quality content and they are incentivized to engage with the reader, and there are share tools and other things on the content that allow them to do that with the articles they write and the videos that they post. But no one is looking in any way to mislead the reader about what the difference is between sponsor content and Quartz’ own editorial content.
Ellis: What are your thoughts about native advertising or content advertising? We’re seeing a lot more organizations that are doing it now and they try to be transparent in it. But I wonder, will people click on it?
I think the older forms of advertising are relatively broken and the right rail ads on traditional websites are not great, for the most part, for readers or for advertisers. I think that there’s an imperative to rethink how advertising is handled, and I think sponsored content is an interesting approach to it.
It puts some onus on the advertiser to write things, or post videos, or do data visualizations, or whatever they do, that are compelling for readers to actually spend time with them and share them. In some ways, it makes the advertisers’ challenge similar to the challenge that an editor has — that the content be compelling. I think over time that’s probably good, that advertisers are thinking actively about the best ways to do stuff that interests readers. I think it’s still pretty early, in terms of how that’s done today. But that’s probably a positive development.