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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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Sept. 13, 2012, 10:15 a.m.
Business Models
quartz-screenshot

The newsonomics of the Quartz business launch

Atlantic Media’s new business site has the advantage of starting with a strategic clean slate. Now, it’s all about execution.

Quartz — Atlantic Media’s business news startup, set to take flight later this month — may be bursting into the marketplace at a gem of a time.

Tepid growth is taking hold in the U.S., with second recession worries ebbing; Europe appears headed for a “soft landing.” The business sector is, anxiously, mending. If you want to launch a new news site, 2012 is a far cry from 2002, or even 2009. Robust, often-cloud-based technologies, often getting cheaper by the year, make content creation, distribution, and presentation far easier. Brands can be created with far less capital, as the social sphere rewards work that captures imaginations at little marginal cost. The barriers to entry have never been lower, in some ways, though this lesson is fitfully understood by most legacy newspaper and magazine publishers.

Quartz aims to take advantage of this digital moment, and in its strategy and coming execution we’ll see our evolving playbook of digital news success filled out. The many startups and initiatives we’ve seen in 2012 — from Skift to HuffPost Live to The Wall Street Journal’s Worldstream (“The newsonomics of leapfrog video”) to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s I Files to the upcoming NowThisNews — are all trying to take advantage of the technologies available at this digital moment. So in Quartz’s launch, for old publishers and new publishers alike, we see numerous distillations of so many web trends and strategies of the moment — it’s social, mobile, infographic-loving, and sponsorship-friendly, for starters — and we’ll get to see which work.

Aimed at the “global business elite,” it begins with a staff of 25, about 20 of them journalists. But those two dozen staffers, largely based in New York, have a significant Atlantic Media bench to call on. The leadership team that revived the moribund Atlantic Monthly, rethought National Journal, and launched government tech site NextGov has been spending a fair amount of time on its new baby. Beyond startup, Quartz has audience, analytics, advertising, finance, and other Atlantic Media assets to call on, and that makes it bigger than it may first seem.

But it’s still a couple dozen insurgent journalists facing the behemoths of the business news business. Thomson Reuters, Bloomberg, and Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal buy journalists by the thousands, and the Financial Times is truly a powerhouse global player. So editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney, late of the Journal, must think niche. Ah, but what niche? And how will he make it intriguing enough for that “elite” that already feels glutted by their overflowing daily news diets? Delaney has hired an impressive staff, including The Economist’s Gideon Lichfield, former Nieman Lab staffer Zach Seward, and Foreign Policy’s Steve LeVine.

You can’t pick a better category of news than business for advertising revenue. It, along with tech, still fetches the highest rates for publishers, with $40-100 CPMs (cost-per-thousand rates). That’s why Rupert Murdoch is making The Wall Street Journal the center (“The newsonomics of the News Corp split”) of his news company spinoff and buying additional business news assets in Australia. That’s why The New York Times has pushed its business envelope, even as it has trimmed coverage in other areas.

Quartz is a funny name, business-like in the old Prudential sense, but not conveying much in the Fortune, Money, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times sense of money words. Then again, did anyone long ago ever think “Bloomberg” would be synonymous with business knowledge? The site, which will be found at Qz.com (Quartz.com is proudly kept by the 62-year-old Natural Scientific Company, which will help you out if you need an authorized momentive GE fused quartz distributor/fabricator), won’t rise or fall on its name, of course. How can we assess its prospects? Let’s bounce off the name, and take a look at how Quartz might land in this hyper-competitive business news marketplace, and what it may do to make a place for itself:

Quirky: In the best sense. Take it two ways. As in Quirky, the NYC-based product development company that just won additional funding and has gained lots of ink. Literally, it’s producing new things out of thin air, turning ideas into realities. Secondly, as in personality. To succeed, Quartz must zag as its competitors zig. It’s got to develop a personality early on as curious readers run across it. The ideal: When people say, that’s a “Quartz story.”

Underwriting: Call it underwriting, sponsorship, or share of voice, Quartz is leaping over the littered landscape of impression-based display advertising and selling sponsorships. It will start with four sponsors, who are paying based on their association with The New. In a twist we’ll see more of — another reason Quartz is worth watching — these advertisers are creating their own content for Quartz readers, through something called “Quartz Bulletin.” That’s an extension of the immersive and deep-content ads we’ve seen on business news tablet products. The buzzwords are “branded content,” as Atlantic Media president Justin Smith explained, as he differentiated Quartz’s approach: “We’re not the first to do sponsored content, but what’s interesting is the fact that we’re building it into the foundation.” The four launch sponsors: Boeing, Credit Suisse, Chevron, and Cadillac, the last also a launch sponsor for HuffPost Live.

Significantly, these sponsorships are the main source of revenue at launch. Quartz is a free site — it has to be to build an audience — but expect Politico Pro-like paid products to be tested some time in 2013 (“Politico Pro, one year in: A premium pricetag, a tight focus and a business success”). In fact, Politico — which innovated a new approach to heavily-covered political news — is an important model that Quartz is building on. Reader revenue, in some form, will be key in the long term.

Alliances: Expect Quartz to start its life with more than dozen-and-a-half partnerships. Atlantic Media’s partnership operation is among the industry’s leaders, so you’ll see Quartz content popping up in places like Flipboard and Pulse, as well as on big traffic portals and niche sites. That’s the beginning. Then think about what about Quartz presence could look like on a CNBC or a struggling Fox Business Network, as Atlantic Media bookers place their new personalities. Then consider Marketplace, the public radio business news franchise with more than 9 million weekly listeners reached through almost 500 stations. It’s a big radio success, but one still looking for its digital identity. Once proven, we can see how Quartz could partner with one of the business behemoths themselves, to gain greater reach and revenue.

Reveal: This is the biggest unanswered question about Quartz, until we actually read it. Is this the same business news others have, but differently covered, written, or presented? Or is business news that others aren’t offering? Is it news, or is it mainly news about business news? We already know that S. Mitra Kalita has been hired from the Journal to lead a strong commentary offering.

“Global business elite” is really a fairly nebulous term, and all the incumbents believe that’s also the crowd they’re serving. All those deep-pocketed competitors are also globalized; just this year, the Journal put up a German-language site and noted that 30 percent of its digital readership is outside the United States.

Is the audience really the “elite” or is it the wannabes, the hundreds of thousands climbing the business ladder? That’s not the same audience, although it has overlapping interests with the 1 percent.

As Delaney and crew launch, they’ll have to have make some assumptions about underserved business audiences and then test them. They’ve got to figure out how to break through the 24/7 roar of digital noise. We can be sure they are trying to learn from the example of The Daily, the first tablet-focused news product. It was so cool in design and format, but its fortunes have foundered on one seemingly simple issue: the lack of differentiated content that gives readers a reason to come back often. (We may see The Daily phenomenon play out anew, as USA Today relaunches shortly. As it does, let’s compare how much of “the new” is presentation and how much is content done differently.) It’s the content, silly, that will make or break a news product. The social/mobile/partnership/sponsorship strategy is simply the platform for success.

Tech strategies: Expect social to be the mother’s milk of discovery for many Quartz readers. While many legacy news sites now count 5-15 percent of their traffic coming from Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, startups like Capital New York have seen as much as 70 percent of their traffic come from social. Social is the prime way some of us now find things. Quartz will make some use of aggregation (a fundamental part of the Skift strategy) to add to its original content. That’s essential, if it’s going to be a go-to site. How it uniquely leverages business news aggregation will be the trick. Technologies have made social discovery and aggregation easy and cheap.

Zest: Zest is more than personality. It’s attitude. My guess is that Quartz’s mobile-target audience is going to be younger than the average business news audience. If Quartz stays within the business beltway, it’ll have to pry readers away from established sources. If it taps into the spirit of business as sport, business as a game to decipher — both of which Marketplace and NPR’s Planet Money have done well — and offers that spirit on the base of rich business knowledge, it may be able to find a place in the corner of the Old Boys’ Business Club.

As Justin Smith said about his sponsorship approach, it’s not Quartz is doing brand new things. As a startup, though, it’s beginning its life on the edge of the new — while many incumbents are testing new approaches as they maintaining their traditional ways of doing things. It’s the luxury — and the risk — of the disruptor.

Global focus. Mobile first. Branded content. Partnership-driven. Share of voice.

Check, check, check, check, check. Now, for Quartz, it’s all about execution.

POSTED     Sept. 13, 2012, 10:15 a.m.
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