“Anyone referring to journalism as ‘a product’ should be shot” – Quartz’s Leo Mirani & Jason Karaian at #HHLdn

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I recently had a look down the back of my sofa, and found a load of notes from talks that I never got round to blogging. So I’m gradually putting that right. Here is what I made of watching Leo Mirani and Jason Karaian talk at Hacks/Hackers London about new business journalism website Quartz last month.

Quartz is a new entry into the business journalism market, being backed by Atlantic magazine. I’ve recently seen Jay Lauf and Kevin Delaney talk about it, but at Hacks/Hackers we got more of a shop-floor talk, as two of the company’s journalists talked about their experience.

Jason Karaian explained that they’d repurposed some slides from “the marketing people” for the evening, so the presentation was full of some buzz-word language they probably wouldn’t say themselves. And then we scored a buzzword bingo house as he outline the site as being “mobile first”, “digitally native”, “HTML5 & responsive”, and all the rather dull catchphrases I tend to come out with myself when explaining how things should be built in 2013. Correctly.

One of the big differences with Quartz is that they have really applied the “every page is a home page” message to their design, so that wherever you land you are instantly plunged into an article, and exposed to a focussed list of what is important on the site at that moment. They also firmly believe in putting as little “friction” in the way of users getting access to their stories as possible, so there is no registration or paywall in place.

Jason explained a key structural difference with the way most newsrooms are set up. Journalists don’t have regular or traditional beats, they have “obsessions”. His, for example, include the Euro currency crisis and Bitcoin. It means he can really go in deep on these subjects, because he isn’t also required to file a 400 word report every day on the movement of the Belgian stock market just because it is part of the beat. Leo said later on that one of the great things about Quartz’s connected but distributed workforce is that they work things up together. “If I think something is interesting,” he observed, “the rest of the team help me make it interesting for ‘normal people’” who aren’t necessarily quite as obsessed.

Brevity is also key with Quartz stories. Jason said he had recently submitted a 350 word story and had it knocked back by the editor for having “too much preamble.” Quite the culture shock for an experienced journalist.

Another interesting bit about their working methodology was how they approach headlines. Basically, if you can’t go to the editor with a headline in the form of a compelling tweet, you haven’t got a story. Quartz’s journalists craft their headlines collaboratively via instant messenger, and they are designed to be shared. “When we query the hive mind, we come up with lots of good ones” Jason said. If, after a few hours, it doesn’t look like a headline is working, they will edit it. As he put it, if you write a good compelling headline, that buys you a bit of time and trust to overwhelm the reader with “wonk-ish” facts and figures.

Leo Mirani talked about some of the tools they used, and Quartz have steered towards open and free. They use Google Hangouts for meetings and Google Docs, the site is built upon WordPress, and they use GIMP instead of Photoshop. The latter, of course, being a form of punishment for the staff.

As well as taking from the free and open web, they also give back, and have open-sourced some of their tools, like the Chart Builder.

Leo said that the site doesn’t do comments, because “as many of you know they are toxic and archaic.” Instead they do “annotations”, where users can attach their thoughts and notes to specific paragraphs within an article.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve seen quite a few people from Quartz talk recently, and they’ve all had an impressive tale to tell about the way they approach their content and technology, as if this is the key factor in their success. Up to a point it is, but I think they are generally far too modest about saying that the reason their approach works is because they have bloody good content to back it up.

Still, it’s just as well I’ve been nice to them, as I think I might find myself on Leo’s hit list. The very last thing I wrote in my notes of the evening was him saying “if anyone is actually referring to journalism as ‘a product’, they should be taken out and shot.” Oooops.

You might also like these posts about talks at Hacks/Hackers London…

“Anyone referring to journalism as ‘a product’ should be shot” – Quartz’s Leo Mirani & Jason Karaian
“Do Assad’s men wear trainers?” – the BBC’s Trushar Barot on social media verification
“Telling the story of Firestorm” – The Guardian’s Jon Henley & Robin Beitra
“We aren’t here to steal anyone’s lunch” – Buzzfeed’s Luke Lewis
“The future for investigative journalism funding” – David Leigh
“Journalists want convenience, not security” – Daniel Cuthbert