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March 19, 2015, 10 a.m.

Newsonomics: Quartz expands into Africa, with a twofer strategy

It’s one of a number of media companies that are beginning to view Africa as a market, not just a subject of occasional coverage.

Boko Haram. Ebola. Child soldiers. These are the sort of tales of woe that many western readers associate with Africa, home to 1.1 billion, a sixth of the world’s population. Relatively few American or European reporters are based there. As foreign reporting staffs have been cut over the past decade, the situation has largely gotten worse (though bright spots, like GlobalPost’s commitment to the continent and CNN International’s broader coverage of life and business there, should be recognized).

Now Quartz, the often contrarian business news startup, ventures into Africa not just as an area of coverage but as a market. By early summer, Quartz will deploy a staff of five or six, located in Lagos, Nairobi, and Johannesburg to develop Quartz Africa. Editor Yinka Adegoke now finds himself in the midst of hiring. A native of Nigeria, Adegoke is an alum of Reuters and, more recently, Billboard who left the country 24 years ago. He’ll be based in New York for now, but his long commutes to Africa will be frequent.

Quartz Africa joins a growing movement of beyond-national-borders news initiatives, a movement I identified as the global media imperative three years ago (“The newsonomics of the global media imperative”). That movement has only grown, as the U.K.-based press (Guardian, Mail Online) have developed global franchises, and The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have both moved into (and occasionally out of) key markets. BuzzFeed has followed Arianna’s lead, setting up a number of national editions. Spiegel and Die Zeit, two pillars of the German press, increasingly offer English-language stories and products.

Yet almost all of these forays focus on the wealthiest nations. EMEA — Europe, Middle East, Africa — is the old business term used by predominantly North American countries looking at new markets, and the “A” has traditionally gotten short shrift.

Quartz, then, is zagging while others zig. The Atlantic Media-owned company has generated all kinds of buzz in its two-and-a-half years. At its birth, conventional wisdom opined that the business news environment was already overcrowded, with sharp-elbowed behemoths including Bloomberg, Thomson Reuters, Dow Jones, and the FT, with CNN Money, Fortune, and Forbes all formidable incumbents as well. With its mobile-forward, native-ad-centered, conversational journalistic style, Quartz innovated a new business model (“The newsonomics of Quartz, 19 months in”) and often finds itself cited for early thinking in the trade. Its influence continues to increase; on Wednesday, its editor-at-large S. Mitra Kalita was announced as managing editor for editorial strategy at the L.A. Times.

This Africa initiative follows another launched last May, with Quartz India. That push informs this strategy and shows more nuance of its business model — and its journalistic sensibility — that a casual reading of the Quartz Africa announcement may miss.

Quartz India, found here for audiences outside the country, started with about 200,000 monthly unique visitors within India. That number has now grown to 500,000. That’s about 5 percent of Quartz’s overall traffic, which surpassed 10 million uniques last fall. As importantly — and right now more importantly for revenue — 10 percent of Quartz’s overall audience, or about 1 million a month, regularly visits Quartz India content.

Both audiences and numbers offer value, but let’s put them in perspective. Quartz pitches itself as a site about global business, offering a fresh, more casual, often chart-driven perspective on stories and events that others cover. For its larger audience, it’s the addition of coverage about Indian business that adds value — and begins to bring in new advertising buys. Likewise, Quartz will add lots of Africa-centric coverage as Adegoke hires up, and that coverage will be read by Quartz’s U.S. and Western readers. Quartz’s bread-and-butter Fortune 500 native-content buying advertisers can buy all of Quartz, or readership by geography. An advertiser like GE, for example, wants the larger Quartz readership, but has already bought Quartz India and is a good prospect for Africa as that audience grows. Auto, infrastructure, financial services, and tech companies populate the key industry ad targets, says Quartz’s publisher and president Jay Lauf.

So consider this a twofer strategy. As Quartz expands its global audience, it can sell that audience to its global advertisers. Secondly, it can develop a longer-term business — and continent-by-continent ad business — as the in-country and in-continent audiences in India and Africa grow. Native advertising, for instance, is a much newer concept in India and Africa than the U.S., so it will take time to develop sales.

Quartz starts with about 100,000 Africa-based readers, most naturally in the most populous countries — South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya, in that order — where its staff will live. The immediate goal: 1 million regular African readers within a year. Both Kenya and Nigeria are among the fastest-growing economies in the world; in the longer term, Nigeria is on its way to becoming the third most populous country on the planet, surpassing the U.S. within 35 years.

Getting those readers will take more than rolling out the brand, of course. In Quartz’s intended editorial sensibility, we see an attempted sea change in in how many U.S. news companies have traditionally covered the developing world. “These readers speak a couple of languages. They’ve probably gone to graduate school,” says Adegoke. “They understand a bigger world.”

“I was in Lagos recently, and they have the Internet. They know about Quartz. They are young, smart people.”

It’s a similar market to the one Quartz has so far cultivated — what it calls “influentials” — half a world away on the East Coast. Lauf says average Quartz readers are in their 40s and, while they can be defined by affluence and education, mindset is as important, he says. “These are people who are excited by change.”

How this audience is spoken to, and with, is also top of mind for Quartz. As you can see in its Africa coverage on political leadership, technology investments, mobile phones, management, and tech innovation, the subject matter goes far beyond the terror-and-strife headlines. As important, they’re often written — as are the pieces from India — from an in-country perspective. This isn’t Forbes’ traditional bread-and-butter of serving up the American dream worldwide; it’s an attempt to meet the world and this millennium’s ever-worldly inhabitants on their own terms, through their own eyes.

In its business model, Quartz uses its own successful playbook, mixing its native and “engagement” ads with a strong events business. Events have been part of larger Atlantic Media’s model — bringing in lots of advertising sponsorship dollars, at good effective cost-per-thousand rates — and they’ll be part of the Africa launch. By mid-summer, Quartz will host one on African innovators, just as it has done with Indian innovators in Bangalore. Its running “The Next Billion” series now takes root in Delhi — its third biggest market after New York and London — and may take root in Africa within a couple of years.

It’s a tough trick that Quartz is trying to master here and, as a reader, I’d say there are some less-than-smooth transitions in its infinite scroll of stories as more global content enters it. The intent, though, makes a lot of sense. As everyone from fast-growing news startups to the most legacy of legacy news companies try to seize the power of global Internet distribution, the play can’t be simple journalistic imperialism, a 21st-century, English-language-dominating replay of the Scramble for Africa that saw the continent divided up by the Europeans at the end of the 19th century. Journalistically, this is about both what is covered and how it’s covered.

Photo of Nairobi skyline by Clara Sanchiz used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 19, 2015, 10 a.m.
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