First impressions of Quartz

Atlantic Media’s mobile-first business site looks great, acts “janky”

Quartz, Atlantic Media’s mobile-first business site, launched on Monday afternoon following much fanfare this summer. Straight off, users responded to its decision to organize content by flexible “obsessions” rather than beats, its mobile-first design, and several first-day glitches (possibly related to its heavy reliance on Javascript, which takes a long time to load) that Nieman Lab described as “janky.”

Back to the future of the open Web

In his welcome note, editor Kevin J. Delaney promised “A new kind of business news offering that is global, digitally native, and designed for the mobile and tablet devices that increasingly dominate our lives.” Rather than create a new app or develop a unique platform for those mobile and tablet devices, Quartz is hosted across all platforms by the ubiquitous, open-source (therefore customizable) Wordpress.

Senior editor Zach Seward said that Quartz was embracing the free, open Web—as opposed to building a Quartz app—to allow readers to distribute content, including URL links, across social media channels more easily. “We’re focused on not putting up any walls,” he told CJR. “That includes paywalls and app walls.”

Streamlined advertising and design

Until the end of the year, Quartz is funded by four launch sponsors (Boeing, Cadillac, Chevron, and Credit Suisse) and ads are largely unobtrusive. Often they appear between stories on the wide vertically-scrolling content browser that dominates the design of the site. Unlike the websites of print publications, which tend to look like the original print format, Quartz has streamlined its homepage to display one large story, topped by a news agency photo. They’re also contacting individual photographers and plan to use reader-generated original photography in the future, to avoid stock photos of white men in suits that Seward said is “more or less outlawed” at Quartz.

Lacking in original content

Quartz has replaced traditional reporter’s beats with flexible “defining obsessions”, which appear along a horizontally-scrolling toolbar across the top of the page. They include the specific (“China Slowdown”), the abstract (“Ideas”) and the traditional (“Lifestyle” and “Technology”). Given that Quartz has a highly qualified team of at least 20 journalists, it’s surprising how much of this content is either sponsored by or aggregated from places like Reuters and The New York Times. Seward told CJR that 80 percent of “effort” in the newsroom goes towards reporting, rather than aggregating, but that’s not yet been reflected in the content. One example: of the 13 stories that appeared under the heading “Energy Shocks” in the site’s first five hours, eight were either sponsored or aggregated.

What’s more, hyperlinks within articles launch in the same window on mobile devices, which takes readers out of Quartz. Seward said that Quartz doesn’t want to get in the way of user browsing, but it still seems like a curious decision for a new site hoping to get people to stick around.

Mobile first

Quartz has managed to create a site that translates across laptops and mobile devices with remarkable uniformity. Even on cellphones, the horizontal “obsessions” toolbar and the vertical navigation toolbar are present but unobtrusive. Also on mobile devices, the site opens to an article rather than a front page, and the photos and graphics are readable. But there are just as remarkable omissions in terms of presentation and content. Some of the graphics are from dated sources and look out of place set in the sleek black browser. Even the site’s custom-built infographics lack interactivity or uniformity of design, which is surprising given Quartz is being sold as digitally native. Seward was vague about this but promised that Quartz has interactive infographics on the way, and that they have a “great team” set up for that very purpose.

No comment

Another curious omission is the ability to comment, given Delaney’s opening statements which profess: “We view the creation of Quartz as just the beginning of an ongoing process, and we hope it will be a collaborative one.” Readers are encouraged to email the editors directly or share content via the usual channels at the end of each article, instead. Seward said that Quartz believes social media has replaced commenting as means of response to an article—if you like it, you’re going to tweet about it and post it elsewhere before you’re going to add your thoughts at the end. “A lot of sites will drop a commenting thing in their site, figuring that’s what you’re supposed to do,” he said. “But if that system isn’t well integrated and your team isn’t interacting with it, it’s not adding value.” It also shields Quartz from public criticism in their own pages, of course. Seward said the site is working on ways to integrate comments in the future. But if this is genuinely collaborative journalism, it is a more restrained effort than the Guardian’s crowd-sourced content, for example.

Looking forward

The greatest challenge for Quartz will be attracting a readership away from well-established brands (and much bigger newsroom resources) of places like The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, especially with the wide-ranging topics its reporters plan to cover. Given that Quartz is unlikely to match its competitors on original reporting, editors are hoping that the site’s visual appeal and personal tone will take them far. “It would be a win for us if Quartz became recognized as a discerning eye,” Seward said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Kevin J. Delaney’s last name.

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Hazel Sheffield is a journalist and filmmaker based in London. She is a former CJR fellow and business editor of the Independent. Tags: , ,