Interviewer: Peter Houston
Zach Seward: I was working at the Wall Street Journal as the newspaper’s first social media editor and doing some work with the product team at Dow Jones, when my boss at the time, Kevin Delaney, got hired to start a new business news outlet for Atlantic Media. That was about as much definition as there was.
Kevin was a great boss and I realized that an opportunity like that wouldn’t come around terribly often in my career, so I ended up following him out the door to do that. That was early 2012. We had this mad dash of a few months to figure out everything, from what we’re going to call this new news organization, get everybody hired, build a website and email to launch, and ultimately get the thing off the ground when we launched in late September of 2012.
Peter Houston: Where did the name Quartz come from?
Quartz is the second most abundant mineral on earth and plays an important role in the shifting of tectonic plates. Metaphorically, Quartz covers those important shifts in the global economy, so it fit nicely there. To be perfectly honest, the most important factor in choosing a name was to be unlike all of our peers in business news, which, when you come to think of it, all have fairly traditional names, like the Wall Street Journal, Investor’s Business Daily, the Financial Times.
We were originally going to call Quartz the Atlas. We told people that quietly, don’t tell anyone yet but we’re thinking about calling it the Atlas. Without fail, they’d say, ‘that’s exactly what I would expect a global business news outlet to be called’. The tenth time that somebody told us that, we knew we had a problem.
Everything else we were saying about what we were trying to do was about reinventing our approach to business journalism and taking a different approach from a lot of our incumbent competitors. So to come up with a name that fit that same traditional mode seemed like a mistake, so we went back to the drawing board. There’s a longer story to how we got to Quartz specifically, but that’s what motivated a more unusual name for the news outlet.
So once you launched, Quartz was very well received. What was it that the audience really took to?
I think Quartz is a news organization people have liked to root for all along. I think part of that is because we’ve tried to be open about what we know and don’t know about what works in digital media. We said on day one, we expected that consumer habits and the industry writ large would be rapidly changing.
We wanted to set Quartz up to be ready to adapt to all those changes as we went and be open about what we were thinking and doing along the way. I think that’s just a fun way to approach things and that openness has probably helped with the reception of Quartz. We’ve been lucky to have a lot of great people come through our doors with creative ideas for journalism that seemed to resonate more broadly and, and help quickly establish our reputation.
Despite that support that you had, and still have, you still had a rough couple of years. Revenue was tough in 2018, 2019 and then here we have this pandemic. Last year, you had a bunch of layoffs, almost half your staff. But now you’re a startup again. You bought the business, what’s your big challenge?
So just to quickly review the corporate ownership, Atlantic Media owned us for the first six years of our existence and then sold Quartz in 2018 to Userbase, which is a publicly-traded Japanese media company. They owned us for about two years, before deciding to put Quartz back up for sale.
In the middle of that process, I raised my hand and said, would you consider a management buyout of the company and that’s what’s happening. In November of 2020, at the end of what was an extremely difficult year for everyone on the planet, and certainly for our industry and digital media, we were able to buy back Quartz and become a startup again.
That’s been a galvanizing moment for us internally and we’re trying to make use of that, to focus on what we know Quartz does best and take the company into the next era.
Your revenue going forward is going to be both advertising sponsorship and membership revenues, is that right?
That’s right. As you were saying before, advertising has been really challenged across the industry over the last few years. When the pandemic struck last year, when it struck hardest in Europe and the US at least, we took a big hit right away. Fortunately, things have recovered really nicely, but that certainly had a really dramatic effect on our revenue early last year.
As a result, I think we’re likely to get to parity in the subscription and advertising businesses faster than we even expected we would when we launched the subscription business. That’s still a gradual process, I don’t expect to be at 50:50 for another four or five years. They’re very different businesses.
The subscription business benefits from a slow and steady build-up. Amid all the other craziness are talking, the one consistent positive performance has been in our subscription business, which doubled over that last year and is now in a place where it’s driving significant revenue for us, but it’s still a minority of our business. Advertising is still much larger.
If you had to describe your advertising sales strategy, how would you describe it?
Collaborating with brands to create content that resonates with our audience. We were early in our industry to embrace sponsored content, and help define that area. It’s remained the bread and butter of our business ever since. The nature of the content has changed a lot over the years.
There was a period when everybody wanted the flashiest possible interactive from us or things like that. These days, a lot of our clients have invested in their own content creation and building newsrooms internally, which is, to my mind, a positive development and a sign that they are taking brand content really seriously.
What they’re coming to us for is a variety of things to help make that work more effective. They work with us to run surveys of our audience to help inform their marketing strategy, or maybe they’ve produced a really great white paper, but work with us to transform that white paper into a piece of content that fits what we know our audiences desire and how they consume content, etc.
Then, of course, we provide insights back to our clients about how our audience is consuming that content to help inform their marketing strategies in the future. No two advertising deals that we do are identical, but that commonality tends to be that there’s some form of content in the work we do. That’s been true all along, despite everything else that’s changed.
We could spend the rest of this call talking about your membership strategy and how you’re going to grow that, but is there one thing that you’re kind of focused on?
We launched a membership offering two years ago. It’s grown nice and steadily since and that’s been a really positive development for us. It’s forced us to focus on making sure we’re being maximally useful to our audience and being clear about what they’re signing up for.
It was no coincidence when we announced the management buyout of Quartz in November that we also rolled out a new tagline and mission for Quartz. Quartz’s mission is to make business better and we believe that companies should solve real problems without creating new ones. Corporations have a responsibility to focus on equitable and sustainable forms of capitalism.
There’s a desperate need to rethink a lot of the fundamental ways in which business is conducted. That’s a perspective that Quartz has had from day one, but we haven’t gone out and made it our explicit mission of the news organization until now.
We all thought that was crucial to do in this membership era. When you’re pulling out your wallet to give money to a news organization, a lot of that is about signing up for that organization’s mission. We need to be clear about what that mission is for Quartz.
I think that mantra, ‘make business better’ chimes with something I’ve read that Katherine Bell, your Editor-in-Chief and now business partner. She wrote before criticizing the media for being part of the system that we report on. As a startup again, are you outside that or are you still part of it? And if you’re still part of it, how do you mitigate?
That’s a great question. I would say we are absolutely still part of the system that Katherine was talking about in this essay that she wrote, trying to define progressive business journalism, which is shorthand for how we approach our coverage. For listeners out there, if you haven’t read it, just Google ‘progressive business journalism’. It’s a really great essay.
I don’t want to speak for Katherine, but the way I interpret what she was saying there is that we will always be part of the system. There is no escaping the system when it comes to capitalism. But smarter forms of business journalism start by recognizing that fact and incorporating it into our coverage.
I do think, for sure, there are some advantages to being independent, as opposed to, say, being part of a publicly-traded company. But it doesn’t change the fact that we’re still a for-profit corporation, trying to make the business model for digital media work in a sustainable way. That will always be the case, regardless of our corporate parenthood.
How do you feel about initiatives like the one that was just announced by Andreessen Horowitz, that they’re going to publish their own stuff?
That was interesting to see. My feeling is that the reaction to that particular announcement was a little overblown, in the sense that plenty of venture capital firms and companies writ large have long been investing in what is essentially brand marketing.
The smarter companies do brand marketing in a way that isn’t just like writing about how great they are, but writing about the field that they’re in. So that a16s would be investing in coverage of the technology industry isn’t terribly surprising. It strikes me as smart, but to be clear, I wouldn’t consider that to be journalism.
It could be great. I hope they produce really interesting coverage. It sounds like they’re trying to provide a counterpoint, in their mind, to some of the more negative coverage of Silicon Valley. As long as people read what they produce with the obvious conflicts that a VC firm brings to the table in mind, I think more is better. I don’t view it as some big new trend. I think it’s part and parcel of something that’s been happening for a while now.
The reaction was pretty visceral. It’s interesting because when Facebook did that print magazine, everyone got really excited about it. It’s just exactly the same thing as that, I guess.
I don’t even remember that, so it goes to show.
I think that tells a tale.
There’s a real imbalance in the discussion about so-called tech versus media. To the extent that the tech industry views journalists these days as ‘out to get them’. That’s really absurd and a misreading of the purpose of journalism, which is more to hold those tech companies accountable.
That tech companies or VC firms think that they can meet that scepticism with a counterpoint, as though it’s like a high school debate tournament with two sides, is a little absurd. I think most readers can understand that and read both. What they’re getting from their journalism is different from what they’re getting from their favourite venture capital firm.
On your Twitter bio, you described journalism as a service. How would you like your members to describe the service that Quartz provides?
The service that Quartz provides is to help them understand the global economy. In particular, we’re really good at making connections between two industries or different locations in the world. When we survey our readers, that’s the kind of thing they say back to us as the most valuable service we provide.
They might be in the finance industry and look to us for really smart coverage of the esports industry, because they’re making a connection between what’s going on in this one new industry that they can bring back to inform their work in their own industry. Drawing those unexpected connections tends to be the Quartz speciality and ultimately is what drives the service we’re providing, of providing a greater understanding of the global economy
The focus of that is the content you do, but also the way you present that content. You started as a journalist, but had a real focus on product development, especially in the early days at Quartz. Now, I guess you’re spending all your time worrying about the commercial aspects of the operation. So you’ve got those three aspects to your career with Quartz, but how do these roles fit together?
When we’re doing it well, they blend together to a large extent. In particular, I think, as a journalist and then as a ‘product person’. In a news organization, the product is the journalism. I think the reason Quartz has had real strength in product development over the years is that we think that way, that we’ve structured product to be closely linked with the newsroom.
When we build editorial products, we do it in conjunction with our product team and our journalists. Some of the products that we’re best known for, the Chat App, the Quartz Weekly Obsession Email – these all have really novel designs. The UX of those products were brand new, more or less, when they came out. The novelty helps get attention, maybe, but they’d be nothing without great writing.
More to the point, you can’t even effectively design a product like that, without doing it in conjunction with writers who are testing out different ways of approaching it. We’re working on a big new product feature now that I’m excited about but haven’t yet released. There’s a product concept, but the next step after that is not to go build it. It’s to start writing and see whether the form is in fact right for the kind of journalistic work we’re trying to do.
I think that’s, to be honest, the secret sauce of making great editorial products is to have those two things be as closely linked as possible. I’ve tried to maintain that in my various different hybrid roles at Quartz over the years.
Do you think the money follows that great content, great UX?
Sometimes! It really depends on the context. Some of what we do is in the service of making the experience of reading Quartz as great as possible. There’s no doubt that that directly serves our readers, and in particular our members and increases their willingness to pay by fitting into their lives in the best way possible.
It has also served our advertising business, I think, to the extent that brands look to Quartz for inspiration in developing the kinds of products that our clients also want to be producing for their own audiences. We’ve had a lot of great collaborations with brands along those lines. It has also led to more traditional sponsorships. We get a lot of demand for running sponsorships alongside our hottest new product offerings. That’s always great to see.