“Humans are the secret weapon” – Cassie Werber talks about Quartz at #ijf17

I’m at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, and these are my notes from a session entitled “Science, data and innovation in digital journalism” featuring Cassie Werber talking about Quartz


Cassie, who also helps run London’s Hacks/Hackers, spent some time talking about the Quartz concept of “Things”. She showed us Atlas, the open-source chart-making tool Quartz have built, and explained a bit about their philosophy that everything should be standalone and good in and of itself. So the newsletter isn’t written to drive traffic to the website, it is written to be a good newsletter, like a chatty smart friend catching you up on what happened during the day. Likewise charts are available for standalone re-use just because the data is interesting.

Cassie said what is important with the idea of “things” like a single idea, or an individual chart, is that the format frees the journalist up from having to pad something out to 750 words with a bit of background and context and quotes, when essentially, like her work covering oil price movements in a previous job, you were basically trying to pad the same story out to the same length everyday.

“Things” from Quartz can be as simple as a single chart, or as complicated as an interactive mapping satellite, but at the heart is the idea that they are very shareable. Cassie says they are encouraged to either write less than 500 words, or more than 1,000 words, but ignore the dead space of 750 uninteresting words. I’m currently looking anxiously at the word count on this post in my blog’s CMS.

Robots, robots, robots

“The robots are coming for our jobs”, said Cassie, and she doesn’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. She thinks it will be wonderful to free up journalists from the menial repetitive tasks to instead write the in-depth things that require real human insight. As an aside, it still boggles my minds that basically in the future robot reporters will be writing articles about movements in the stock market, where the trading has been done by robots.

Quartz have started a Bot Studio and the three areas of focus they have are:

  • Bots and conversation. What does it mean for news organisations if you can have an open space on your site or app for the audience to ask you questions, and to have a way of answering them.
  • Actual voice conversations. What does journalism look like in a world of Alexa or Google Home.
  • Tools for journalists. What can bots do to make our jobs easier?

“Humans are the secret weapon of the app”

Ironically, given this new work in bots, the things that people are most likely to think is a bot, the Quartz app, is actually powered by humans.

Quartz were, Cassie admitted, late to the app party. Research shows most people only use a handful of apps, and the company didn’t want to invest in something that hardly anybody would use just to essentially republish what was already on the website.

The spark that got them interested in building one was thinking about notifications. In a world where people use less apps, and the browser less, and spend more time switched on to Facebook, Quartz began thinking about the battle for the lock screen.

So they had four people working on the app – product, designer, developer, marketing lead. No journalist, I noted. They were looking at how Quartz could do notifications better – not better than notifications from your friends or spouse – but better than those annoying pings and buzzes that distract you from your day.

The eventual app’s style owes a little to the heritage of choose-your-own-adventure, although Cassie Werber pointed out that the newspaper has pretty much always been a choose your own adventure – you are given a package and you get to pick the order you scan the sections in, which things you pick to read, which supplements on a Sunday go straight in the recycling bin.

We got a brief glimpse at the CMS – which is obviously bliss to nerds like me.

Their main learning was that they had to write original content that was the right tone for the right form. It seems obvious, but I’ve seen and been involved in so many projects where the aim is to work out how to squeeze existing content types through a brand new pipeline, without stepping back and really thinking about what type of content is going to best serve the user need. “Mate, we are already writing 500 articles a day. Don’t tell me we’ve got to write some new stuff for this app too? Can’t we just use this RSS feed over here to power it all?”

That tone is really important. It only becomes conversational from having journalists fascinated and intimately interested in the content and their beat, writing content for the form. Cassie said they all feel strongly that the app simply wouldn’t work if it didn’t have people behind it. As one Quartz senior figure has observed: “Humans are the secret weapon of the app”

NOTE TO SELF: Live technical demos on hotel wifi. Do not do them, ever.

You can watch Cassie Werber’s presentation about Quartz online. Find all my blog posts from the 2017 International Journalism Festival.