Inside Quartz’s profitability plan: Africa, subscriptions and remote working 

Future News 82

Employee number two is very much in charge now. Quartz boss Zach Seward, who was appointed CEO in October 2019, teamed up with Editor-in-Chief Katherine Bell to buy the global business outlet from Uzabase in November. 

The Japanese intelligence firm had acquired Quartz from Atlantic Media only two years before that in a deal apparently worth up to $110m (£80m). New York-based Seward is now the company’s biggest shareholder just under nine years after co-founding the digital-only news media venture in 2012. 

For the former outreach editor of The Wall Street Journal the decision to acquire Quartz boiled down to two questions: is the outlet the most important journalistic project that he wants to be working on and does he believe that Quartz can create and sustain a business model that will maintain a long-term, sustainable news organisation? 

“I came to ‘yes’ on both of those questions,” Seward told FN. “I have a lot of my soul invested in Quartz and feel really strongly about some of the approaches we have taken to business journalism compared to established outlets. Quartz’s voice needs to exist in the business media landscape.” 

A top goal for the newly independent Quartz management team is to become profitable. To help achieve that ambition, Seward is seeking new investors, a Chief Revenue Officer, Natalie Diamond, has been appointed and subscription growth will be a strong focus for the team going forward.

Seward expects membership fees (£80 for a year or £12 per month) to grow to around a quarter of Quartz’s total revenues by the end of the year, with the majority of income still coming from advertising. 

“A healthy goal is for those revenue streams to eventually be in parity, but that’s at least five years off,” he said. “The advertising business remains the biggest chunk of revenue for us and will remain so for the next five years if not more.” 

The good news is that Quartz recently hit a milestone on subscriptions, surpassing 25,000 members at the end of November. The bad news is that the outlet faces an increasingly crowded and competitive market. 

The publication should be given credit for popularising the modern-day newsletter since many outlets only used to post headlines and hyperlinks, rather than treating the distribution service as its own editorial product. But established business outlets, including The FT, The Wall Street Journal and The Economist, now have their own well-followed newsletters. Then there is Axios, The Morning Brew and a plethora of Substack-powered upstarts. 

Despite this, Seward revealed that Quartz is keen to expand its email offering. As it stands, the outlet has seven newsletters, including the flagship Quartz Daily Briefing, alongside nine so-called obsessions (Future of Work, Beyond Silicon Valley and The Climate Economy, by way of example), which “power” the newsroom and are reviewed every six to 12 months. 

The publication has also earned a reputation for innovation, offering Field Guides (long-reads into industries) and boardroom-ready presentations to its members. Virtual workshops have also driven subscriptions throughout 2020 because of their “utility and value” and Quartz has more planned for this year. 

“We are putting a real premium on learning and having practical takeaways,” Seward said. “The structure includes the right mix of activities and participants. We have been regularly getting more than 1,000 people attending these live events. Afterwards we send follow-up materials, including a recording, materials from Quartz and elsewhere. That requires a membership.” 

This is just one of the pandemic-induced changes the outlet has embraced. Another is remote working, something the publication is going to “maintain forever”, according to Seward.

“Our shift to a distributed workforce has only had a positive impact,” he said. “Selfishly, it helps us be competitive for talent and to improve the diversity of our workforce.” 

The outlet is also expanding its staff for Quartz Africa, one of five editions, including Quartz, Quartz at Work, Quartz India and Quartz Japan, and to introduce a subscription offering for its “devoted and passionate” readership base there. The flagship product at the moment is the Quartz Africa Weekly Briefing and the majority of its employees on the continent are based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Quartz Japan, which represents around 15% of subscription revenue, will also receive more investment, while the publication will seek to strengthen its presence in East Asia with the hiring of a reporter in Taiwan (the outlet already has a team in Hong Kong). 

As for where the outlet is pulling back on following a restructuring in May, video production has been cut apart from on LinkedIn, where Seward has been hosting a weekly Make Business Better interview show.

“We want to be where our readers are and they are on LinkedIn, which has been experimenting with live video,” he said. “So it seemed like a good opportunity to get in front of our audience there more regularly and emphasise the mission.” And looking ahead to the future? “I feel very good about the trajectory we are on.” 

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