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April 14, 2022, 11:21 a.m.

Quartz is dropping its paywall (but hopes its 25,000 paying members will stick around for the newsletters)

With the short-lived metered paywall down, the vast majority of Quartz’s journalism will now be free for all.

In May 2019, Quartz put up a paywall. A little less than three years later, the business-focused news site is taking it back down.

With the short-lived metered paywall out of the way, the vast majority of Quartz content will now be free for all. Frequent visitors to QZ.com will be asked to register their email after reading three articles per month. The only content that’ll remain subscriber-only is a handful of premium emails, including the recently-launched Quartz Africa, The Forecast, and the Weekend Brief.

Quartz CEO and co-founder Zach Seward claimed the decision was made after reader surveys showed a majority of Quartz members — there are about 25,000 of them, and an annual subscription costs $100/year — didn’t subscribe for the exclusive access anyway. He believes those members will continue to pay their annual $100 subscription fee because they support the site’s mission.

“Generally our journalism is focused on identifying better, more sustainable forms of capitalism, helping people figure out tricky problems at work, separating viable from unviable solutions to major problems like climate change,” Seward said. “If we actually mean what we say about that mission — and it’s not just a marketing slogan — then it seems clear to us that the best way to achieve it is by making as much of that as freely available to as many people as possible.”

He added, quickly, “That was true, of course, three years ago when we put the paywall up in the first place.”

A lot has happened in the intervening years. The Covid-19 pandemic’s effect on advertising forced Quartz to make large layoffs in early 2020. Later that year, Seward and the staff bought the company from owner Uzabase. (The publicly traded Japanese company had paid $86 million for Quartz in 2018 and sold it back at a substantial loss.) The news items left some wondering whether Quartz, despite “spinning out genuinely innovative features” as a digital media darling, was caught in the “mushy middle,” as Steven Perlberg wrote, of “not quite niche enough to be essential to a small group of readers, but not quite big enough to compete at scale.”

The site still makes most of its revenue through advertising but, going forward, Quartz is not abandoning reader revenue entirely. Seward said Quartz has seen the most success with vertical subscription products like Quartz Japan, and will continue to develop subscriber-only newsletters.

Quartz is going against the grain by dropping its paywall. Though news orgs like The Atlantic and Slate have dropped paywalls in the past, most have gone back and reinstated them and the general trend in recent years has been toward asking readers to pay for journalism. (The most visible being, of course, the uncommonly successful New York Times.)

But there have been rumblings, recently, that a paywall may not be for everyone. Or, at least, not for every reader. This February, the Austin American-Statesman became one of four Gannett newspapers to experiment with dropping its metered paywall and a handful of news organizations have adopted Sophi, an AI-powered dynamic paywall engineered by folks at The Globe and Mail.

Quartz will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year, not an insignificant achievement in digital media. Seward said the site is focused on staying obsessed with “what’s changing” rather than “reporting on status quo aspects of business.” It prompted me to ask about trying to see around corners, either through one’s reporting or by anticipating shifts in what might work in the business of journalism.

“It’s complicated and takes time to figure out and unravel. It’s hard to do in a single story,” Seward noted. “The quintessential story for Quartz is one where you’re sort of working that out over time — piece by piece.”

Photo taken in Mexico City by Jacqueline Brandwayn and used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 14, 2022, 11:21 a.m.
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