Having disrupted business news, Quartz goes after the lucrative research market

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Quartz's offices / Mark Craemer

Having thoroughly disrupted the market in business news, Quartz now plans a similar assault on the highly lucrative trade in specialist research.

Launched barely four years ago, Quartz was founded in New York on the premise that the business news consumers of the future would want their content served on mobile platforms.

The wisdom of that decision by publisher Atlantic Media seems obvious today, now that Quartz has amassed a readership of 20 million, established a global editorial team and won a string of accolades for its groundbreaking app. But it was a gamble back in 2012, when only one in five of the business news audience was consuming articles on mobile.

It has helped dispel the image of the business news consumer as scanning the markets on the printed page over their eggs at breakfast, and replaced it with the reality of the busy modern professional, accessing information on-the-go between meetings or in the airport lounge.

And having left the broadsheet page, and even the business vertical on a news website, looking like artefacts from another communications age, Quartz sees a fresh opportunity in doing something similar to the unwieldy and mobile-unfriendly bulk of the traditional research report, hitherto a source of major revenues to the business press and other publishers.

This is a potentially valuable income stream for Quartz, which gives free access to its news content and makes its money primarily through its well-developed native advertising model, helping it to total revenues that are understood to be around $30m.

“If you thought that news was not adapted for mobile consumption a few years ago, a very similar situation exists (now) with research,” says Quartz’s editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney in an interview with The Drum.

“I read a lot of research in this area and it is white papers, it’s the PDF file on your phone and you just give up because you are pinching (the screen on the mobile device) and the data bases of information in these areas are not at all suited to access on phones.”

Harnessing artificial intelligence

Delaney thinks the key to the success of this growth strategy in optimising research for mobile will be his organisation’s understanding of machine learning. In recent weeks, it has established the Quartz Bot Studio (this will develop talking software able to perform automated journalistic research), and made its first acquisition, buying Intelligentsia.ai, a research company with great expertise in the field of artificial intelligence.

“Our 100% focus now (in research) is on artificial intelligence (AI) because it is the biggest issue that we see businesses struggling to understand in terms of its implications for their business,” says Delaney in a lengthy discussion of Quartz’s future plans at its bureau in London.

Just as Intelligentsia.ai, a San Francisco startup founded by Dave and Helen Edwards, has produced research reports, company profiles and an email newsletter for paying subscribers, now Quartz will look to do something similar. “They launched a paid research service and our expectation is that we will build on what they launched and in the coming months release our own research service under a subscription model,” says Delaney.

Other business publishers, such as the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, have invested heavily in making their content more suited to mobile consumption. But Delaney insists that Quartz, built for handheld devices as it was, has an inherent advantage. “It's really challenging to news organisations and research organisations to shift because they have demonstrated their value historically by delivering print newspapers or piles of PDFs,” he says. “We don't have to be sentimental about that.”

Dave Edwards, a former Apple executive and Morgan Stanley analyst who worked with the influential venture capitalist Mary Meeker, and Helen Edwards, an expert in the utilities sector, will now also contribute to the Quartz newsroom with their insights on AI. It was already a a favourite Quartz topic (or “obsession” as the news outlet terms its newsroom desk specialisms), with a two-journalist team working full-time on the theme: machines with brains.

The Quartz editorial operation has grown to become genuinely global. It does not want to sound like a voice from Wall Street. It has a team of eight in Hong Kong and of seven in India, with staffers in Nigeria and South Africa. The London bureau –with 20 staff – is the most important after New York, and Delaney doesn’t see Brexit changing that.

Quartz’s 30 current editorial obsessions range from the Science of Learning (meaning the future of education) to Contagion (epidemics) and the Space Business (and whether it is just a fantasy project for billionaires). Its reporting reflects its global interest, with the Future of Hong Kong being another of its flexible beats, and in-depth reporting on the challenges facing female professionals in India being an example of how it is bringing its voice to that important market.

News as conversation

Messaging is another Quartz obsession, one that is vital to its own business. The Quartz app, which launched last year, has a unique text bubble conversational style. For a provider of serious business news it was a brave move but Quartz reporters with backgrounds at such institutions as the Economist and Reuters are more than happy to communicate in a “chat interface with Emojis and gifs,” Delaney says. “They see it as an opportunity to reach people, to be creative, to engage in the news, that takes advantage of the idioms that people are using.”

Importantly the app has been well-received by the outside world. GQ magazine ranked it sixth in its list of the 100 “best things in the world”. It also won the chairman’s award at The Drum’s Online Media Awards.

Quartz hopes to take this conversational approach further by moving onto messaging platforms themselves. Technologically it is good to go. Facebook Messenger, the largest platform, would seem the obvious place to start, although the likes of Slack and Kik are other possibilities in the messaging field.

This is the way Quartz works, focusing relentlessly on the way consumers use their mobile devices. “Think of what people do on their phone,” says Delaney. “People email, they chat in iMessenger or whatever, they use social media, they play games, they do commerce and web browsing. Apart from games we have experimented with all those formats.”

In its email newsletter, the Daily Brief, Quartz outperformed the offerings of rival outlets which could not resist the temptation to drive users back to their home pages (Delaney calls these “automated headline dumps”), disrupting the user experience of scrolling down the mail. A special edition Davos Daily Brief was curated for the recent World Economic Forum and enjoyed an open rate of 66 per cent, with 21 per cent of its subscribers being new to Quartz.

Owned by Atlantic Media, it has what Delaney calls a “sibling” relationship with the famous the Atlantic magazine brand, operating as a separate business but sharing some back office functions, such as human resources and a joint legal team.

Advertising returns

Quartz began with four advertising partners and has expanded to an open approach which now numbers between 120-150 clients. Over 90% of its advertisers return.

Sitting alongside Delaney is Simon Davies, head of Quartz’s commercial operations in the EMEA regions, who says that Quartz’s advantage in the now crowded market for sponsored content is that it has been providing such a service from day one. “It’s a head start – we have the experience of what has worked and what hasn't worked across a variety of sectors.”

He agrees it is strange to talk about “heritage” when discussing a brand that is less than five years old but this is a fast-moving environment and Quartz’s strategy has been built on monitoring and adapting to the changing use by consumers of digital technology. It adapts its products partly in response to learning it gains from its annual Global Executive Survey.

Davies says it is not enough to simply build a product and stick with it. “These audiences are reinventing it themselves. It's not about ‘We have found the formula, let's keep chucking it out’. If you stay still, the audience keeps moving.”

Just as mobile technology will continue to evolve at a dizzying speed, so Quartz must continue to adapt to the way consumers are using it to communicate, says Delaney. “This process of radical reinvention around serving readers on mobile devices better than anybody else is a pretty constant and intense effort on our part.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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