“Every story starts with an audience of zero” – Jay Lauf of Quartz at news:rewired


I’ve been at the latest edition of news:rewired, and of course, note-taking and blogging furiously. Here are my notes from the opening keynote talk by Jay Lauf, publisher of Quartz.

“Every story starts with an audience of zero” – Jay Lauf

Jay Lauf started by apologising for being the “business” side talking to a room full of journalists, but he needn’t have worried because his core message about Quartz was about putting good stories and good journalism at the heart of an operation. It is barely a year old, and qz.com is on course to average around 3.3million unique users a month.

Jay Lauf’s question to the audience was where do people think audience comes from? He outlined three key areas, using Alexis Madrigal’s motif of the attempts to win that audience as “games”. He liked the analogy, he said, as it invoked images of a set of a rules, and a scoreboard. He thinks that, traditionally, journalists have not cared about the numbers enough.

The three games started with “the homepage game”. The idea that people will just sit down, type in your URL, and say “Hello, website x, what have you got for me today”. It is a seductive idea for journalists and especially editors, as it places the news brand at the centre of the user’s universe. You only have to see how many stakeholders will flock around a homepage redesign project to see how powerful it is. But, as Jay observed, on most sites the homepage is only going to make up 10% or 15% of your traffic. Leaving up to 90% of it unaccounted for.

The second game, Jay said, is “the search game”, one that he described as waning. We’ve spent a long time, he argued, writing to please Google robots, but this influence is diminishing. He even spoke of some journalists being instructed to deliberately misspell celebrity names to catch SEO traffic from common user typing mistakes. I slightly disagreed with Jay on this point – as my friend from the Guardian Chris Moran is always keen to point out, that search traffic doesn’t come from the robots, the traffic comes from human beings typing words into a search engine. But Jay’s broader point, that news organisation expend a lot of effort on this and it maybe delivers 25% of their traffic, holds true.

His third game was the “social” one. Making up the 60%-ish of your traffic that isn’t homepage or search driven, this consists of the visible “light social” of Facebook and Twitter shares and likes and retweets, and the “dark social” of email. I’ve said many times that news organisations under-estimate the power of email sharing—I wrote a piece about the impact it can have for The MediaBriefing—and a strong email newsletter component was always part of the plan for UsVsTh3m.

Of all the different slices of audience that make up the whole, Jay Lauf identified one as crucial—the SYBAWs. Smart, young and bored at work, these people are in front of computers all day, have devices in their hands all day, and are probably a little under-employed, given where they are in their careers. They gain social capital by being “in the know” and the first to share good stuff. If your news brand isn’t reaching these people, Jay said, you are dead on the web today—or at least will be dead on the web tomorrow.

Jay said at Quartz the focus is how to get into those social streams and in front of the SYBAW audience. I think probably the most important thing he said was that they consider that every article starts with an audience of zero. It is so easy to slip into assuming that the reach of your article is the total print circulation, or the total ABCe score of a publication. In fact, you start with nothing. Working on UsVsTh3m has been a brilliant lesson in this for me, as we literally started with an audience of zero and no brand reputation.

This attitude manifests itself at Quartz by writing the headline before you write the article. If the headline alone doesn’t look tweetable, or like something people will share, then, Jay said, you probably haven’t got a Quartz story. At the heart of every sharable story, he said, is a “nugget”. If you can expose that nugget in the headline and make it shareable, you’ve possibly got a web hit.

Another technique Quartz use is to be very visual. They’ve quickly gained a reputation for infographics, and Jay said they can often tell a story much more quickly on the web using one, rather than the old-fashioned print approach of a 500-700 word piece that features what he described as “lots of throat-clearing”.

The Quartz developers sit in the newsroom, an all-too-rare phenomena, and build the tools that the journalists are using in collaboration with them. Their infographic tool has been out-sourced, a move that Jay Lauf said he questioned. If this thing gives us such an advantage in story-telling over our competitors, he said, why would we give it away? He was persuaded by two answers:

  1. It is the right internet ethos thing to do, and the team will get improvements to the tool back in return.
  2. All their competitors will have a crappy CMS and a legacy workflow that makes it impossible for them to deploy infographics as quickly as Quartz can do it.

The latter point is a pretty damning indictment of where most publishers are more than twenty years after the World Wide Web got going.

Quartz deals with very different subject matter to UsVsTh3m, but it was very interesting to hear a lot of things Jay said being similar to the kind of thinking we’d put into it, like reveal the story on the homepage don’t make people click through to it, or mimic the infinite scroll of Twitter or email, and make everything tweetable.