“Making news stand-out in a social media world” – Quartz’s Kevin Delaney at #SmartDEN

Quartz are by far one of the most interesting entries into the news market in the last couple of years, and at #SmartDEN, editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney spoke about how they operate.

Kevin explained that they were “digitally native” and “mobile first” because that is where they see future growth coming from. They designed their responsive HTML5 site for tablet first, rather than what he described as “the usual process” of converting desktop content to mobile using RSS feeds.

He showed a slide to illustrate how they believe the news model has shifted from “pull” to “push” over the last few years. The audience used to gather for appointment TV news slots, but now, especially younger age groups, news comes to them through an ambient process that often involves things being posted to social media. He said that consumer attitude might sound “arrogant”, that “if the news is important enough it will reach me”, but it is the reality of the market we are dealing with.

For that reason, he said, the Quartz focus was on making their content stand-out when it appeared in the social media stream of Tweetdeck or Twitter or Facebook. They aim to create “distinctive content” that attracts attention in those places, rather than spending hours carefully curating a homepage that people aren’t visiting. They are committed to free open access on the web, as Kevin says having a paywall or an app adds friction into the process of getting people from that link to your site in a social stream to reading your content.

People from Quartz are very fond of referring to “the Quartz curve”, a generic U-shaped graph which they can change the axis labels on. Kevin showed a version that had “chance of social media success” on one axis, and “word count” on the other. They, he said, believe that the 500-800 word article is at the low-point in the middle. They have social success with short, snappy, timely content, or with lengthy considered analysis pieces. The 500-800 word article—the default atom of content for most journalists (including obvs me)—is least likely to succeed socially.

Kevin Delaney made a very telling point, and one that sounds a bit depressing for us as an industry. He said he starts his day reading through all the financial and business papers and websites, to look for things that Quartz might have missed or should be covering. During the course of that, each day he reckons he finds between five or ten really good pieces of unique reporting of high quality analysis. Given the thousands of people employed gathering and reporting this news, he said, that is a pretty low strike rate for quality. For Quartz, he said, the trick is working both ends of that curve, and ignoring the commodity middle ground.

The Quartz curve, illustrated by Dan Shewan.

The Quartz curve, illustrated by Dan Shewan.

At UsVsTh3m we adopted similar ideas, that we don’t write articles, that everything should be a tweet, that paragraphs are deeply unsharable. It seems to have worked for us too, and you’ll see soon enough how that has influenced our thinking on Mysterious Project Y Ampp3d, my new data journalism start-up for Trinity Mirror.

I’ve seen a few presentation from people working at Quartz recently, and they’ve all been very impressive. There’s one point they always seem to miss though. There is a lot of talk about how they analyse what they do to make things successful, and how they’ve approached things differently. They seem to be too modest to say that one of the reasons for their success is simply that their stuff is very good. In my experience there is no short-cut for good content, and no design, process or methodology will ever make mediocre content truly successful.