A collection of evolving phenomena: Kevin J. Delaney of Quartz
With a kind of jealousy-inducing kaleidoscopic flair, Quartz occupies that weird sweet in-between space that’s been so interesting for media nerds like myself to note and track – they’re a (very pretty) site, but they’re also a publication, and a newsletter, a data visualization tool, a news app, a video production company – in the interview below, Quartz’s editor-in-chief and co-president Kevin J. Delaney terms the project an API, or application-program interface (as a semi-Luddite, this was a term I had to look up), because the great ambition is to get “Quartz content to flow to wherever users are.” With a monthly audience of around 20 million users (Kevin’s term – meant to signify a more robust degree of engagement than “viewer” or “reader”), I’d probably check that one off the list, but the folks at Quartz aren’t quite satisfied: they’ve recently created a Talent Lab to find, hire, and nurture talented young journalists around the world – an extremely admirable project – and they continue to publish and organize content in a way that challenges traditional ways of viewing the world.
First, I’m hoping you could offer just a very brief overview of the history and mission of Quartz – it’s only been around since 2012, but it has had tremendous success connecting to a huge community of readers. Wondering if the stated audience of “business professionals” continues to be the primary group of people Quartz seeks to connect with, and how the mission differs from the mission of a publication like The Atlantic?
Kevin J. Delaney: Quartz is a guide to the new global economy for global business professionals excited by change. Since our launch in late 2012, we have grown to a readership of around 20 million monthly unique visitors around the world, with a median reader age of 41 and reader demographic over-indexing for business decision makers and executives in tech and finance. It is our ambition to be the business news outlet of this century, and global business readers continue to be our most loyal audience.
Is Quartz a publication or a website? Is there any significant difference between those two things? Is there any benefit to describing it one way or the other?
KJD: When Quartz launched, we were careful not to call it a website. The ambition extended well beyond that; our mobile-first qz.com site on the web was merely its first iteration.
That remains the most-read manifestation of Quartz, but millions of users encounter us each month on other platforms, ranging from our email newsletters to Flipboard and Apple News and video published to Facebook.
Internally we talk about how Quartz is an API, or application program interface – the point of that metaphor is really that we want Quartz content to flow to wherever users are, much as an API allows data to extend to other platforms.
The Daily Brief is one example: Its success is due to writing the email as its own thing, intended simply to be the best morning briefing on the global economy that one could receive. No easy task, but the purity of that mission is what makes the Daily Brief shine. We’re not trying to drive traffic to qz.com; it lives natively in your inbox. That has been a successful business strategy, as well, with ads in the email sold separately from the website, generating more revenue for Quartz.
Speaking of generating revenue, there's been lots of discussion, in light of the various ways (good and bad, effective and not-so-effective) that the 2016 presidential campaign was covered, about the best ways to fund good journalism (attracting advertisers, corporate partners/sponsors, donations/honorariums, crowdfunding, etc.). Wondering if you have thoughts on this – how does Quartz fund its journalists?
KJD: Creating a quality digital publication that is sustainable over time is central to Quartz’s founding mission. We’ve all kept our heads down and executed against that approach – and today, amid industry hand-wringing about advertising and business models, we are among the rare digital media startups to have achieved profitability. We’re especially proud of the way we’ve gotten here, which has been through continued focus on our users and their experience. This means that the advertising on Quartz does not interrupt the user, and instead, are the types of ads that people actually want to read and share.
Do you believe there is an "ideal" business model for publications?
KJD: The ideal business model is one that allows a publication to be profitable, and thus sustainable, over time. At Quartz, we’ve managed to achieve that through high-quality advertising. We’ve also brought in revenue from events, and will later this year launch a subscription research service designed to help companies apply artificial intelligence to their businesses. Over time, we expect to have a mix of revenue streams, including advertising, events, and subscriptions – that’s a time-tested model that helps smooth out periodic fluctuations in any one of them.
Could you talk a little bit about why the sponsored content is designed to look like the actual editorial content? I’m sure there was probably lots of discussion about this between the Editorial and Creative teams.
KJD: All sponsored content is clearly labeled. What Quartz Creative services aims to do is create advertising experiences that readers enjoy. The editorial team does not participate in the development of this content.
Quartz uses an in-house creative team for its advertising services. Our Global Executive Study (see here: https://insights.qz.com/ges/2016/) shows that readers value sponsor content if it is relevant to them. This team extracts relevant stories from advertisers that are designed and built with interactivity and compelling story lines. To staff the creative department, Quartz recruits a diverse team of researchers, writers, and editors that only serve on the advertising team.
When a client and their agency come to Quartz with an idea or a new product they want to sell, Quartz runs the campaign through a process that includes a design team, a development team, and a branded content team.
For example, for the new Lexus NX Turbo, Quartz broke the car down to its marketable components: the product combines the aesthetics of a bold luxury automobile with the practicality of a Sport Utility Vehicle and the performance of a turbocharged engine. Using those ideas, Quartz decided to build an interactive visualization that was a bit of a departure from a standard car commercial. The interactive communicated how these aspects of product design influenced products as diverse as electronic ink, on-demand video and tabbed web browsing. Quartz calls these kinds of ads “Bulletins.”
The way the navigation bar is set up is intriguing – can you discuss how and why the decision to organize site content into “Our Picks,” “Latest,” “Popular”, and “Obsessions” was made?
KJD: When we created our navigation, we felt that it's better to start with mobile first because it forced us to simplify and break down what we felt is essential to the user and Quartz as a brand. Our navigation on the desktop differs from what we have on the mobile site. On the desktop, since we publish a large amount of content per day, we felt that “Our Picks,” “Latest,” “Popular”, and “Obsessions” gave the user a helpful way to sort through our content without overwhelming them with too many options. We also wanted to have a human curation element in the kind of stories we presented to our readers so “Our Picks” is curated vs. “Latest” and “Popular” being machine generated.
Instead of describing the world in terms of a set of fixed subject-matter categories – the “beats” of traditional newspapers – we see it as a collection of evolving phenomena. We call those our Obsessions, and they include things like the future of finance, business of space, machines with brains (artificial intelligence and automation), China’s internet, and Europe’s survival. Our reporters then bring obsession to covering them.
Instead of describing the world in terms of a set of fixed subject-matter categories, we see it as a collection of evolving phenomena.
What is the mission of Quartz’s Talent Lab? Has it worked the way you envisioned it working?
KJD: The Talent Lab has complementary missions. The first part is working to identify and hire talented reporters and editors around the world, so that we can continue enabling Quartz to produce successful and distinctive coverage. The other half of that is working with the journalists we already have on staff to make sure they're continuing to grow in their careers. We've had a lot of success so far on both ends of that spectrum, but we started the Talent Lab just last year and I think we have just scratched the surface of what we can do.
Last question: could you offer two or three publications you admire and/or tend to read, and why?
KJD: Like many people, I read articles from dozens of different publications every week. The gift of the internet is that excellent and distinctive journalism, and articles that are in line with our interests, tend to float to the top in our feeds and streams. So at any given moment, the work I most admire could come from a wide variety of publications.
The publications I go to directly with any regularity include the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Times of London, Le Monde, Bloomberg Business Week, Financial Times, The Information, the New Yorker, New York Magazine, the Economist, and The Atlantic. As a group, I admire their journalistic talent and earnest pursuit of the truth and great writing.