Caught in the mushy middle: How Quartz fell to earth
The Atlantic wanted to corner a more premium space, selling marquee advertisers on a new generation of yacht owners and Rolex wearers. A free and digital Economist for the budding millennial business elite. The concept oozed an Obama-era ethos of global interconnectivity. "When you walk through a busy Asian airport, nobody is talking about or thinking about the American economy. The world has gotten much bigger than that," David Bradley, then the owner of the Atlantic magazine, told the New York Times upon the launch of Quartz
. Under the leadership of editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney, a former Wall Street Journal editor, and publisher Jay Lauf, formerly of the Atlantic, the project began with a staff of 20 journalists and four premium sponsors — Boeing, Cadillac, Chevron and Credit Suisse.
Staffers from the early years say that Quartz calacatta luxury
was marked by a culture of experimentation and innovation codified by an internal buzzword — "quartziness" — a nebulous term loosely defined as the meeting of creativity, quirkiness and intelligence.
In August 2013, when Steve Ballmer stepped down from Microsoft, Quartz's headline highlighted the CEO's personal windfall from the surging stock: "Steve Ballmer just made $625 million by firing himself." The clever take helped Quartz's version of the story rise above the rest in the early days of headlines engineered for the social web, where hundreds of thousands of pageviews, if not millions, hinged on framing. "That was a very archetypal way we responded to breaking news," said Gideon Lichfield, then an editor at Quartz and now the editor-in-chief of MIT Technology Review. "We talked a lot in those days about 'quartziness.' To figure out the unexpected take or angle on something and write that."
A Quartz style guide from the time encouraged reporters to "write at the intersection of the important and the interesting" and to "think social." Stories should fall on the "Quartz curve," meaning either short (less than 500 words) or long (more than 800 words), but not in the middle, a rejection of the typical length of a newspaper story in the mobile-reader ecosystem. The newsroom eschewed "desks" or "beats" and organized around "obsessions." Africa's economy is a beat, according to the style guide, but Chinese investment in Africa is an obsession — a phenomenon shaping readers' lives and industries. "Obsessions" shift, while beats remain constant, in theory making Quartz's newsroom more agile but in practice also permitting reporters to be more scattered.
Quartz quickly gained a reputation among media navel-gazers as one of the most forward-thinking newsrooms on the "future of news." The company was regularly lauded across the trade press, including by Digiday, for experimenting with technology in ways both useful (compelling visual ads) and charming (a light in the newsroom letting staffers know when it was going to rain).