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Quartz: The new biz-news site is a technological and structural innovator, with only a few hiccups

The site, from the folks who bring you The Atlantic, promises an app-like experience. But there’s also risk in breaking two decades of website metaphors.

Quartz, the new business news site from Atlantic Media, launched today. It’s one of the most high-profile launches the online news business has seen this year, and that’s because of what it promised: a tablet-first mindset; a digitally appropriate structure; an app-like interface; a new-world business model.

I’m rooting for Quartz, both because I like to see news orgs innovate and succeed and because I know some of Quartz’s higher-ups. (Zach Seward, Quartz’ senior editor, was my first hire here at Nieman Lab back in 2008. And Kevin Delaney, the editor-in-chief, and I worked on the same college newspaper back in the 1990s.) I think it’s got a lot of promise — it feels of-the-moment and fresh in a way I haven’t seen in a new news site since The Verge debuted last year. But its ambitions also run up against some hard questions of how people consume news in 2012. Here’s my quick take on what Quartz offered on Day 1.

Giving first-class status to web-native modes of discovery

Quartz launched with a great dig at its competition, in Kevin’s letter to readers:

Quartz is intended to embody the era in which we’re creating it, like Wired in the 1990s, Rolling Stone in the 1960s, Fortune in the 1930s, and The Economist in the 1840s.

Ouch! (Emphasis mine.) An interesting strategy: Take a field where gravitas and institutional standing rule and turn it on its head. But the important structural differences between Quartz and its peers aren’t about 2012 vs. 1843. They’re about 2012 vs. 1996 — roughly the time when the early traditional news organizations started going online.

When newspapers moved to the web, they took their design metaphors with them. News site front pages err on the side of information density — stuffing a slew of headlines into a relatively small space — with editorial judgment guiding a story’s placement, which was an indicator of its importance or merit. (The important stuff got the bigger headlines and placement “above the fold,” as it were.)

Quartz — born with around 20 years of web experience already behind us — doesn’t bring the same design ideas. So three views — Top, Latest, and Popular — are given first-class status in the left sidebar. News designers have long debated the merits of each view — think nytimes.com’s front page vs. Times Wire vs. the most emailed list. But giving those three options such prominence means Quartz is as close as any news site has come to becoming view-agnostic.

(It’s also part of Quartz’s general positioning as app-like without being an app. Giving equal weight to multiple views is a natural in, say, a word processor or a spreadsheet. Switching is only a quick trip to the View menu away.)

Beyond view agnosticism, Quartz feels 2012-born in other ways. Linking out also gets first-class status; aggregated posts that point readers off-site live alongside full articles, with roughly equal weight. It has a JSON-spitting API at launch, so if you don’t like its design, you could mash up an alternative without too much trouble. The great gift of a media startup in 2012 is the ability to leap over the cruftiness the industry has accumulated, and Quartz seems set on doing just that.

App-like experiences are still a little buggy

The downside of making that leap is that technology sometimes doesn’t keeping up with our ideas. Quartz at launch feels a bit janky; it relies so heavily on JavaScript and DOM manipulation that stories just won’t load properly on a low-end device without it.

It apparently just won’t work in Internet Explorer, even the relatively modern IE8. While my inner web developer wants to stand and applaud undercutting a browser that’s caused nothing but pain to the industry, its users are still a healthy chunk of the web. Windows Phone and Android users are reporting problems, and on Twitter there seems to be a tension between the appealing flash of the new design, the mysteries of its user interaction layer, and the slowness of its code.

It’s launch day, and some of that will be fixable. And over time, people get newer and faster devices who handle stressful scripts better than their predecessors. But even on new hardware and a modern browser — like my new iPad — it’s not quite as responsive and fluid as you’d like. Scrolling on a trackpad regularly sends you places you didn’t intend to go.

A couple of weeks ago, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said that counting on HTML5 was the company’s biggest mistake on mobile platforms — that while building out native apps on a variety of platforms is a pain, it also provides a far smoother experience. I wonder if, once Quartz has a good idea of how its users are accessing the site, it’ll consider picking a few spots where native development makes sense. (There’s a reason that Java went from “Write once, run everywhere” in the minds of developers to “Write once, debug everywhere.”)

Of course, what makes sense for Facebook won’t necessarily make sense for Quartz. Facebook is a destination and a platform. Quartz wouldn’t mind being either, but it knows a healthy chunk of its traffic will come from social platforms, which are good about dumping users into browsers and bad about dumping them into apps. (Being paywall-free, social spread promises to be one of Quartz’s big strengths.)

Three other quick tech notes:

  • I couldn’t get starred articles (sort of a read-later system) to work.
  • Quartz intercepts “open in new tab” requests — command-clicking a link keeps you in the same tab. That’s app-like! But speaking only for myself, geez that’s enraging.
  • The site’s built on WordPress VIP and is a pretty good advertisement for the open-source platform’s ability to build out unusual taxonomies and other CMS-like elements.

Scrolling over picking

Remember those newsprint design metaphors that got carried over to the web? Another was scannability — the idea that a good front page should pull in a healthy number of options and then ask the reader to choose among them.

There’s a long-term trend away from that model and toward making the first choice for the reader. If you wanted to chart this geologically, you might mention:

  • 1982: USA Today launches and becomes famous for mandating most stories on the front page be self-contained.
  • 2009: The BBC News iPad app launches with a front page that isn’t a front page — it’s a menu of options on the left and a complete story on the right. The two panes interact with one another, but the key is that at launch, you’ve already got a full story staring back at you.
  • 2012: Quartz launches with a lead story always displayed in full on the front page.

Considering the number of people who view a news site’s front page and click nothing at all, there’s something appealing about throwing you right into a story. It’s a natural impact of the nichification of media. Quartz isn’t trying to present “All the news that’s fit to print” and leave the choice up to a diverse group of readers; it believes it knows its audience well enough to say “Start over here.” And when you’re done with that story, bam, here’s the next one.

It’s not a risk-free strategy. That story had better be good, for one thing. And it does makes the site harder to scan; it’s disorienting to see only five story headlines on a screenful of my MacBook Air and have the page be so dominated by a single headline and image. And it plays into one of Quartz’s biggest problems, which is that its navigation can be confusing; we’re used to clicks leading to predictable actions, and Quartz disrupts some of that.

But the scrolling stream — the river, as Dave Winer would call it — is the design metaphor of our media moment. It’s not just about Twitter or Facebook feeds; it’s a visualization of how we deal with information overload. Things appear at the top and disappear at the bottom. Instead of surveying a stack of piled-up options, it’s about ingesting content in a moment’s time. It’s the framing of the anti-archive, the promise that a story’s long-term life will come from social propagation instead of front-page placement. Even when the stream isn’t strictly chronological (as Quartz’s default view isn’t), it’s still about the passage of time.

Two other thoughts:

  • I admire the JavaScript magic invoked when you scroll that top story on the front page. Once you get past a certain point, the URL in your browser’s address bar changes to the URL of the story, not the qz.com front page. That makes it easier for someone to copy/paste the URL into an email or a tweet. Smart. And the same happens when your scrolling takes you from story to story in the stream.
  • Interesting that the advertorial sponsor content — the site’s chief revenue model going forward — doesn’t show up when you’re scrolling from story to story. (It’s in the headline well on the left, but not in the actual space where the stories appear; sponsor content gets magically skipped over.) On one hand, that’s good if a big chunk of advertorial would annoy scrollers and drive them away. But on the other, the ability to inject those ads in a scroll interface is a big part of its appeal — putting paid readable messages right where people are reading.

Oh yeah, the content

While Quartz’s design cues and content structures are interesting to news nerds and web types, it’ll be the content that’ll ultimately determine how it’ll do. That’s hard to judge on Day 1, but the mix of content seems just as global as promised and nearly as high-end. (It’s so high-end it doesn’t allow comments. For Quartz’s desired audience, it’s probably welcome to soar above the ground-bound commenting riff-raff.) It’s also not above a little Atlantic-style clickbait now and then.

As C.W. Anderson wrote here last week, Quartz is organizing its editorial capacity around what it calls “obsessions” rather than beats. That is an interesting idea, but it’s one that in practice is less of a big deal than some first thought.

Chris (C.W.) writes that an obsessions model could help free reporting from an institutional structure (the cops beat, the courts beat, the schools beat, etc.) that influences which stories are told and why. True, but that’s also a bigger deal for a newspaper than for an operation like Quartz that has only about 20 staffers, yet claims as its coverage area something as amorphous and all-encompassing as global business.

Of course they’re not going to tie up their reporters with the captain-of-industry equivalent of school board meetings — they’re going to pick their shots, as Businessweek or Fortune do. Remember Quartz is more a magazine than anything else: from staff size to parentage (Atlantic Media) to inspiration (see that list of magazines-in-their-age).

Quartz’s list of “current obsessions” doesn’t sound all that far from what would be considered beats at other news orgs: the mobile web, the Euro crunch, startups. A few are bigger trends that are abstracted up half-a-layer: China’s slowdown (rather than the Chinese economy), low interest rates (rather than central banks), energy shocks (rather than energy policy). But I think it’s more of a slight evolution than a revolution.

(I’d link to Quartz’s list of current obsessions, but the site’s giving me two different URLs for it, and both point to 404s. Live by JavaScript, die by JavaScript. It’s under “About.”)

What I do like about the obsessions model is that obsessions are destined to be temporary and responsive to reality. (Newspapers rarely think: “Let’s stop covering courts for a while and really focus on artisanal bread for the next few months.”) In the site’s top topic navigation, temporary obsessions rank alongside permanent topics. The URL structures are even different; obsessions get “/on/” in the URL, while topics get /re/.

The challenge

Technical problems aside, Quartz has had a promising start. But it’s in an extremely competitive space and I still see a few questions.

  • By being free, Quartz is a better match for the social web than its paywalled peers. But its user experience for a social reader — someone dipping in and dipping out — is slowed by its app-aspiring ways. Can it strike a balance between the two and build something that works for reading built around individual URLs and around something more immersive?
  • Can a web-native platform achieve the same sort of prestige among elite business leaders that a print-native outlet can? The FT, The Economist, and others are going to defend their turf, and many of its competitors have editorial resources that far outstrip Quartz’s. They also look good sitting on a tray table in first class. How quickly can Quartz join that club?
  • What will be its publishing pace? The Atlantic has remarkably (and profitably) managed the transition online by shifting from high-quality, not-so-frequent content (the print monthly) to really frequent and somewhat-more-mixed-bag-quality content (the various Atlantic websites, which churn out enormous amounts of content every day, some of it quite good, some of it only passable). How much does an online-native site that’s aiming for a high-end audience produce? What’s the right editorial rhythm?
  • Can it really own a particular topic? The promise of building your work around “obsessions” is that you had better dominate them — or at the very least produce a ton of exclusive, high-value work around them. Quartz is trying to reach an audience of very busy people; can it be essential for them?
  • And can its business model succeed? It has launch partners for the rest of this year in place. But for all the talk of an ad model built about sponsor content and not on banner ads, there were still plenty of display ads. Presumably future advertisers/content partners will be looking both to see raw numbers and strong evidence that Quartz has attracted the right crowd of readers.

I wouldn’t advise betting against Kevin, Zach, and the other smart folks at Quartz. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps along the way.

                                   
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  • http://arnereport.net/ Arne Kaufmann

    I do not like it, if websites hijack anything, like denying me to open stuff in new tabs or other keystrokes. And “App Like” as reason? I do not care about “App Like”, it isn’t so that I want to stay in this one newspaper app in my browser on my desktop. That would be something for mobile, but not desktop. 

    Keeping in mind, that I do not have something entirely against “App ‘Like”. I think the online redesign of USAToday was good, it is kind of App Like to, but they do not hijack any of my keys and let me do what I want.

  • http://twitter.com/neocronica NEOCRONICA

  • http://twitter.com/neocronica NEOCRONICA

    To me a key concept of the “river” is that users tweak it and filter it until it runs in the way they want. Tumblr and Twitter are the best examples, whereas Facebook does it in reverse (you add everyone you know and only then hide people with bad visual taste).

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Larry-Grimes/666839204 Larry Grimes

    Judging from the content quality, the main business press has nothing to worry about.  I don’t get it.  Seems like a pretty damn boring presentation to me.  MAybe they shoudl have waited for some substance before they launched.     

  • Tej Kohli Clinic

    really i cann’t accept this news.i think it may be few chances to hijack website.

  • khoivinh

    Quartz in this first iteration is not perfect, and I’m pretty sure its staff is not claiming that it is. But it’s very well done and an important milestone in the heretofore stop-start nature of digital news design evolution. Twenty years from now, more digital news products will look like Quartz than like today’s NYTimes.com. 

  • Kiula

    And your own websites, NiemenLab, is not even responsive and impossible to read on mobile. Get your own act together before you comment about others…just sayin’ :)