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What makes Quartz tick: A look inside the growing online news channel that demands quality

Quartz, the New York-headquartered, Atlantic Media-owned online news organisation, clearly sees itself as being the cream of the crop for both online content delivery and through its premium advertising offer, an attitude it aims to emulate internationally.

It's still quiet in the offices of Quartz when The Drum arrives early on an pre-autumnal morning.

The business has just celebrated three years since it began reporting and has already grown to employ 150 people with further offices located in London, Africa and India, having quickly realised its international aspirations having recorded 16 million monthly visitors in September.

Revenue too was up 80 per cent year on year according to an internal memo with 21 per cent generated outside its US operations.

In greeting its president and publisher, Jay Lauf, in a small meeting room to the side of the open plan newsroom, there is a sense of quiet confidence that is generated across the room by a man who has worked with both Atlantic Media and Wired to great success.

Within three years the business has scaled to around 150 people and is still hiring with a 60/40 per cent breakdown of editorial and business respectively, explains Lauf, who started Quartz with a staff of 24 three years ago.

He bemoans the difficulty of hiring staff to meet its high standards, with journalists at one stage expected to speak two languages fluently to cope with the international vision.

"We're very particular about talent," he states, adding that owner David Bradley uses the phrase "extreme talent" when recruiting.

He goes on to say that the brand is in a stage where people either love it or are unaware of it, and describes the reason why its users are so passionate about it by explaining that ‘Quartziness’ has become an adjective for rivals to try and emulate its success in both design and strategy.

“We are at this phase right now at only three years old that I recognise from my days at Wired and also at the Atlantic when, as you are getting known, people fall into one of two camps: there are people who don't know of us, but the ones that do are like super fans. That will sound a bit too like a cheerleader but it's true, either your don't know us or you love us. There's not a lot in between. It's a fun phase and the next phase is to continue to generate more awareness.”

Asked about online reporting and the 'echo chamber' that has become a prominent reporting strategy by media chasing visitor hits, Luaf describes it as “a problem” for companies that seek traffic in commodities versus offering distinctive coverage. He cites the Quartz Curve, a U-shape momentum within a graph that highlights the most popular online content as being above or below the 500-800 word mark, as its own strategy for engaging content creation.

“We have the notion of 'going long' - to say something definitive that is a ‘must-read,’ is well researched or well written, that distinguishes you from everyone else who is writing about the same story, or 'go short'. Don't waste people's time which a lot of commoditized brands do.

"Get back to the point and say something visual and punchy, which we call 'the atomic'. What's the atomic nugget in this story that actually matters? It's one of the things that readers respect and welcome. Don't say the same thing that 50 other outlets are saying. The reason to come to Quartz is that we provide a quick valuable insight that nobody else did.”

In its three years, the company has built up a client advertising base to around 130 blue-chip brands and claims to have a 90 per cent retention rate, seeing between 60-70 returning for a second cycle, claims Lauf.

"It's one thing to get marketers to try the shiny new thing, they are always going to set aside budget for that, but can we keep them coming back? That's the critical metric for us," he adds, before claiming that interaction levels and social sharing are other metrics that brands ask about.

"There is also the subject of beauty - the advertising in our platform looks great and both readers and marketers respond viscerally to that. Depending on the spend and objective of an advertiser, we might do a pre-and-post study where we would be able to show brand lift or favorability. Any of those metrics seem to be working for us."

Lauf believes that "the pendulum is swinging" away from companies chasing quick online visits to quality content creation and that those media companies that are not thinking in that respect may have difficulty adjusting down the line.

However, despite seeing 42 per cent of revenue generated by users through mobile devices, don't expect Quartz to launch a mobile app anytime soon, as Lauf admits his cynicism to the average open rates by users, although he does concede that the notifications they can generate is an attractive feature in itself for news distributors.

Future international growth remains at the forefront of the business strategy having cemented the African presence of Quartz, however Lauf won't be drawn on any further regions planned anytime soon. He does admit that there are some commercial strategy plans that will be moved forward with in 2016, but is again tight-lipped as to what those are exactly.

Whatever those may be, Quartz continues to be a new age media player worth watching and reading.

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