What challenges have you faced setting up a mobile-first product and how have you overcome them?
A bunch of us worked in traditional media [at publications like The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and The New York Times], and we had a deep conviction about the opportunity for high quality digitally native journalism for mobile devices, with [social sharing] as the primary engine for distribution. The biggest challenge was that I was the first person hired and we launched just six months after I was hired. Really I had about 10 weeks for development work. The challenge was one of speed, but it was healthy because the lack of time helped us prioritise. We didn’t have time for anything that wasn’t essential to the reading experience, which was part of our original view.
Define Quartz’s purpose.
Quartz’s purpose is to write about the new global economy for business readers around the world. We say our readers are excited by change, and Quartz is borne out of changes in the media landscape. The voice we’re going for is one that’s smart and has knowledge of the world, is kind of nerdy in the details of how things work but doesn’t talk down to readers—and hopefully contains a bit of humour because we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We’re journalists from different places but one thing we look for is international experience. Our team speaks 19 different languages.
What is your current setup in Asia and how do you plan to develop your presence here editorially?
We have two journalists in Hong Kong and one in Bangkok and a full-time freelancer. I have a deep interest in expanding coverage in key markets including Japan, Korea, Singapore and the Philippines, and we’ll start by working with more freelancers. We’re in expansion mode; about a third of our journalists are outside the US and my expectation is that that stays the same or tilts more in favour of journalists internationally.
What kind of journalists are needed for today’s world?
The work we do is different in many ways to that of the traditional journalist. Our expectations are that each journalist is involved more deeply in a breadth of activities—all of them write in WordPress, write headlines, locate their own pictures and create their own charts. Our reporters need to be game to do all these things. And we think about social from the moment we start a story. We ask them to write the headline first, which requires people to be really focused about what’s most interesting about what they’re writing before they sit down.
What sort of content do you think really works online/on mobile?
The standard range online is 700 words, but it turns out those articles are not as focused and shareable without the payoff for the reader in terms of narrative or reporting that there can be in longer pieces. We want things that are creative and fast or things that are longer and more ambitious and unique, so we do write posts regularly that are 1000 words long. I think the optimum is the curve—short or long.
Why is it still such a struggle for most news organisations to get it right?
The real challenge for media companies is thinking about content from the inception as something that will be successful digitally. In a lot of traditional news organisations they still write for print and try to tweet it or put it on Facebook, but they’re not digitally native. Digital is bolted on after the article is produced and the solution in a lot of newsrooms is to have teams of people who will tweet things, but you have to think about digital as the place where your readers are from the moment you think about whether something is a story or not.
Clickbait headlines are a failure: if someone doesn’t share it, your distribution is really compromised. That’s what’s cool about this moment in journalism: There’s pressure on publishers to figure out what’s interesting and deliver that. If you think about newspapers, you never knew if someone read something or not, as distribution was dictated by physical infrastructure. There was little direct pressure to figure out what’s really interesting for readers.
What is your opinion on the rise of ‘brand journalism’?
I don’t think a lot about it. It’s outside my focus. The landscape is changing dramatically. I’m more interested in the extent to which brands are getting away from press releases and producing content that’s more compelling. One example is Tesla, which recently wrote a piece about a man who owns the most Tesla vehicles and lives inside the Arctic Circle.
What do you read?
I read broadly as a function of the job and because I love news and magazines, so I like the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York magazine, I read The Economist and BusinessWeek and The Wall Street Journal and the FT. Stuff comes to me that’s interesting and I find it in a variety of ways. I have less loyalty to specific publications. I use Twitter, Nozzle, and Atlantic Media’s social network This.
Is readers’ lack of loyalty a problem?
It’s the reality. Our expectation is that the bulk of our readers will encounter our content elsewhere but we do have a core group that come back to our site every day so we value loyal readers, but we know that by volume the bulk of readers started by clicking through to a piece of content as opposed to going to qz.com.
This interview follows Campaign's recent discussion with Quartz's publisher, Jay Lauf.