NewsRewired 2013: Three things driving’s journalism

Quartz, the newest member of The Atlantic Media network, launched in 2012, but by July, it already had 5 m users and said that it had already passed The Economist’s web traffic in the US and would soon pass the Financial Times, and Jay Lauf, the publisher of the site, kicked off’s News Rewired 2013 talking about the strategy behind the site’s success.

Lauf started by saying that digital media need to ask: Where does your audience come from? Do they come to you directly, via search or social?

Direct: 10 to 15 percent of traffic – While it is nice to think that people come straight to your homepage, he compared that to the fanciful idea that his young daughter comes to him every night as he eats dinner and asks for his advice, any nuggets of wisdom he might impart. It’s a nice idea, but as every parent knows, this isn’t reality. Similarly, journalists believe that their audience online are coming to them directly to learn the news of the day. Even on big sites like CNN and the New York Times, direct traffic is only 10 to 15 percent of traffic. That leaves 85 percent of your traffic off the table, Lauf said.

Search: 25 percent and stalled – A couple of years ago, the focus on was on SEO. It was the search game, a game of trying to “trick the robots, writing for machines not audiences”. He said that some journalists were encouraged to misspell the names of celebrities so that these sites could capture the 50 percent of traffic from people who commonly misspelt those celebs’ names. “That leads to a lot of questions. What does this mean for the quality and intellectual honesty of journalism?” Lauf asked, adding that it was a “waning game”

From a business standpoint, he said that search traffic referrals have “flat-lined” at about 25 percent, so a focus on SEO still leaves a lot of traffic.

Social – sharing and ‘dark social’ – However, the rest is coming via sharing, either through social and sharing networks – Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pininterest – or through ‘dark social’, simply sending links via IM or email.*

He said that we could all debate the value of the audience from these sources, but Lauf said that if a news site wasn’t winning with SYBAWs – smart, young and bored at work readers – they were dead. He said that media consumption had moved from pull (with the image of US newspaper sales box) to push (social media and mobile notifications).

Lauf summed up the new news consumer with the quote:

If the news is that important it will find me.

For Quartz, the question is how they get into these streams, these social streams that will SYBAWs are using to monitor news. They focus on three things:

Be visual “Embrace the fact that the web is a visual medium. Liberate content from the conventional constructions of the print world.”
What’s the thing? – Lauf said, that every story has a nugget, a data point, a new angle that gets to heart of something new and interesting. We love to share nuggets. “That doesn’t mean that story can’t widen, but think of headline first. Think of headline as a tweet. Will people share this? Will it travel?”
Radically simple, responsive design – They have created a radically simple site that looks clean on the desktop, the tablet and mobile. They don’t need separate tablet or mobile apps because the site looks good on all platforms, and it uses an infinite scroll. They didn’t clutter the site with a dizzying choice of 50 links when “people came to read only one story”, Lauf said.

They have also carried this radical simplicity to their ad strategy. Lauf said:

We rethought the way that we designed advertising. We wanted to avoid a Piccadilly Circus of drop-downs, pushovers and distractions.

The ads appear in Quartz’s news stream, much like ads now appear in the Facebook mobile news feed. They are labeled as sponsored content, and they are shaded subtly differently in the navigation.

They have 50 full-time staff, split almost evenly between business and administrative staff and editorial staff. Developers sit side-by-side with editors and journalists, he said.

In July, just ten months after launch, Quartz announced that it had 5 m users, and they claimed that they had already passed The Economist in terms of traffic in the US and was setting its sights on overtaking the Financial Times in the US. (A claim that the The Economist disputed saying that ComScore consistently under-reported their US traffic.) Quartz predicted just yesterday that it would be profitable by 2015.

Quartz might be based in the US, but it is obvious that it has global ambitions if for no other reason editor Kevin Delaney requires his journalists to speak fluently at least two languages. Of the site’s 50 or so full-time journalists and contributors, they speak 119 languages.

As the publisher, Lauf might be on the business side, but he ended on an inspirational vision for journalism. He said:

I started out as a journalist, a wide-eyed idealist, and I’m still a wide-eyed idealist. I still believe deeply what we’re doing on the business side is essential and important work. Intellectually, honest journalism is the underpinning for a democratic society. If we can figure out how to make this commercially valuable for hundreds of years to come, we all win.

Amen. With some of the long-standing tensions between the business and editorial sides of news organisations especially during this time of cuts and chaos in the industry, it is essential to hear business side leaders making the strong case that smart commercial thinking supports the mission of journalism. Business leaders in journalism are not all ‘bean counters’ obsessed with the short term. If we can solve the commercial problems and develop new revenue streams and rejuvenated business models, journalism, journalists, audiences and democracies all win.

* If you’re unfamiliar with the term dark social, did a recent podcast on that. It’s called dark social because it is listed simply as ‘direct’ traffic from analytics services. This could be traffic from people directly typing in the URL, people sharing the link via IM or email or people using secure search.