April 14, 2022

As it approaches its 10th birthday, Quartz, the digital business news site, is pivoting strategy again, dropping a paywall and offering most of its content for free.

In an announcement Thursday morning, Quartz said that it will continue to pursue reader revenue through premium memberships and its separate subscription emails in Japan and Africa.

What happened? Co-founder and CEO Zach Seward wrote to me in an email interview, “Like many publications, we felt the worst of the pandemic in early 2020. By the end of the year, however, we were able to stabilize the business and get to a point where we were able to think about our longer term strategy, like this shift.”

Seward and editor Katherine Bell are currently sole owners of Quartz, he said, but plan to add financial partners for future growth.

The cliches about how fast the digital world moves apply vividly to Quartz’s first decade.

It began life in September 2012 as a well-financed expansion project of Atlantic Media, covering selective “obsession” business topics mostly in short-burst stories geared to being read on mobile devices.

While not making money every year, Quartz appeared to be a roaring success by mid-2018. Staff had grown from 22 to 225, revenue from zero to $30 million.

Quartz also was an early adopter of sponsored content, avoiding the obnoxious, interruptive clutter of much digital advertising. It also seemed to have found a sweet spot for coverage in the already crowded general business news niche – targeting the interests and worldview of a younger professional audience.

“We are a guide to the new global economy,” Seward told me then. “So we are focused on explanation” — not so much investigations or event-driven news breaks. “Also, we have a bias against the status quo. Not everything is interesting — even some whole industries.”

Atlantic Media was spinning off side businesses by then and sold Quartz to a Japanese financial information company, Uzabase, for $75 million.

That turned out not to be a marriage made in heaven. Uzabase was trying to expand its NewsPicks product in an English-language version in the U.S. market.

Also it favored a paid digital subscription model and pushed that on Quartz. A public company, Uzabase soon was reporting that revenue fell sharply once the paywall went in as audience contracted.

The pandemic made a bad situation worse. Quartz laid off 80 employees in May 2020, closed offices abroad and cut salaries. 

In November 2020 Uzabase exited altogether, selling at a huge loss to Seward and Bell.

Quartz’s editorial and business model has evolved in other fairly predictable ways. It has added podcasts and developed a family of premium add-ons for its most devoted followers.

Email newsletters have become the dominant method for delivering content. 

“Our email readers are, by far, the most engaged, loyal, and likely to become paying members,” Seward wrote, “And when they do, 75% of members primarily engage with our journalism in emails, which is why we started sending more of our premium content for members in that form.”

One new product the company announced Thursday will be a Guide to Making Business Better. It will collect Quartz content over the years on how to satisfy purpose-driven professionals and get businesses engaged with issues — a hot topic these days in c-suites as well as with younger employees.

I have liked Quartz’s elegant concept and execution since its launch and got more good vibes several times visiting its lively worker-designed New York headquarters. 

I suppose, though its trajectory along with others like BuzzFeed, illustrates how many bumps along the road in how little time are to be found on the road to successful maturity.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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