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Quartz: The Power Of Good Journalism To Move Society Forward – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Jay Lauf, Publisher and President, Quartz.

September 17, 2015

Mr. Magazine™ at the waterfront in Cape Town.

Mr. Magazine™ at the waterfront in Cape Town.

From South Africa with Love: The Mr. Magazine™ Interview

“It’s not self-help; we’re not a trade vehicle, something that’s designed to help you with the day-to-day running of the business necessarily. But what you have is a lot of people who believe in the power of good journalism to move society forward, to help good ideas rise to the top and to help uncover negative issues when those arise. And I think the cohering DNA of anybody who works at Quartz, whether you are on the editorial, engineering, or marketing teams, is a desire to figure out a way to make high-quality, intellectually rigorous journalism thrive in a digital age.” Jay Lauf

Quartz is an arm of Atlantic Media that is a global business news brand that was launched in September 2012 for people who are excited by change. It serves as a digital guide to the new global economy. Designed for an efficient, mobile reading experience, Quartz serves business professionals who travel the world, are focused on international markets, and value critical thinking.

Jay Lauf is publisher and president of Quartz and is a man who has managed to do what others in the publishing industry haven’t been able to quite master; he has grown the audience of Quartz tremendously and has brought digital revenue to the company, revenue that accounts for more than half of its total dollars. And while Jay refuses to take all the credit for that growth, he knows a little bit about publishing, having 25 years of experience, serving as publisher at both Wired and The Atlantic for many years.

I caught up with Jay recently in Cape Town, South Africa, where we were both speaking at the Media24/Lifestyle Summit. We talked about the global mission of Quartz and the drive to educate and help people all over the world find their place in this often confusing global economy of ours. Jay is a man who is as business savvy as the brand he is so passionate about. We talked about the upcoming three-year anniversary of Quartz and the digital publications’ many achievements and its robust success. And in typical Mr. Magazine™ style, we even talked about the possibility of adding a print component to the mix. No definite answer to that one; I’ll get back to you later on Quartz-in-print.

I hope you enjoy this lively and extremely interesting Mr. Magazine™ conversation with a man who has been in the business long enough to know a winner when he stares one in the face each and every day; the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Jay Lauf, publisher and president, Quartz. Our conversation took place at the beautiful and famous Tea Room at the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town.

But first, the sound-bites:


Jay Lauf In Cape Town with The Lion's Head mountaintop to his right and Table mountain to his left.

Jay Lauf In Cape Town with The Lion’s Head mountaintop to his right and Table mountain to his left.


On some of the most important achievements that Quartz has realized since its inception three years ago in 2012:
I think some of the greatest achievements for Quartz over the last three years have to do with how quickly we’ve scaled. Starting with an audience of zero in September 2012 and ostensibly without any advertising; we achieved 10 million readers globally before we were 2½ years old. And to do that as rapidly as we did, I think is an achievement that we’re really proud of and frankly, a testament to the power of social word-spreading.

On whether he feels the achievements that Quartz has had over the last three years would have been possible or the venture even doable at all without the strong Atlantic brand behind it:
That’s a really great question. Do I think we could have achieved what we have so far? Yes; I think the premise of Quartz and the independence of Quartz stands on its own, but there’s absolutely no question that the brand certainly helped by giving us a strong foundation and instant credibility, being born from a company that produces The Atlantic certainly helped with both, advertisers trusting us from the beginning and readership as well.

On whether or not he immediately jumped on the job at Quartz or took some time to mull it over from all angles: I have navigated most of the last 15 years of my career with my gut and my heart, quite frankly. The Atlantic had been my favorite magazine; I’d been a subscriber for well over ten years before I received the first recruiting call from Justin Smith (then president of Atlantic Media). I went on the original interview for The Atlantic with Justin and David Bradley out of purely a fan-voiced curiosity. I really wanted to see who put The Atlantic together because I loved it and I had never met these guys before. When the Quartz opportunity came about it was the first time that I was less about gut and more calculated, because that for me offered an opportunity to pick your buzz word, jump into a purely digital, social startup, but inside a company I already had equity with and one where I knew the owner and I knew the company and we knew each other.

On how Quartz puts the reader first and offers them something different from everything else out there on the digital landscape:
What we try to do every single day whether it’s through the lenses of advertising, content or design is to think about what would we want as users from this proposition? And what you discover is that if you respect the reader first, it’s not only because that’s great for the reader, it’s great for the publisher and the advertiser too. So, “reader-first” is absolutely at the heart of literally everything that we develop at Quartz.

On the moment he knew that he’d made the right decision to take the job with Quartz:
I would say halfway through, maybe toward the end of 2013. The first year of any startup you’re kind of just in a fog. You’re not really stepping back and assessing; you’re in the thick of it 24-7. By the end of 2013 when we really started to see an acceleration of the business side and advertisers were really beginning to jump in and being very positive about what they were hearing from us; you could see in the tea leaves that 2014 was going to be a really strong year.

On whether he believes an endeavor like Quartz would have been possible without the financial backing of David Bradley or was it simply part luck and the other part good-sense:
I think any success that’s as drastic as what we’ve achieved is part luck, and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably a charlatan. But there’s no question that having David’s backing was important. But I think it has as much to do with his support and fresh ideas and a willingness to take risks on those ideas, as it does his money that put us in a position to be as successful as this.

On the global audience of Quartz and how it came about:
The concept was to be global from the beginning; to be distinctly post-national. We try to speak in a post-national voice. What’s amazing to me and just fascinating to observe, is that putting out great content and putting it on the free and open web, and again, without any local promotion in this market or any, actually grew a global audience. The audience found us through the sharing mechanisms that are now networked globally. And it’s pretty amazing.

On whether he believes the homepage is dead:
I think in the beginning we were correct and boldly said the homepage was dead and launched as you may remember, without a homepage at all. That level of focus allowed us to really spend our intellectual and financial resources on creating things besides the homepage that were actually going to be bigger drivers of traffic. So, it depends on how one defines “dead.”

On whether or not he can envision a print version of Quartz in the future:
I’m done predicting the future; those of us who predict the future end up contradicting ourselves three or four years later. I will say there is a bunch of people on our team who love beautiful magazines. And a lot of the queues that we do in terms of design and advertising are taken from magazines. So, that’s certainly something that we talk about and have talked about. But there’s certainly nothing in the imminent future.

On anything else he’d like to add:
I think the interesting thing to think about on the inside is we are an institution that recognizes that the economy is now global and increasingly interconnected and the world is getting smaller, but we do not want to come into these locales and tell the same stories that typical western media are telling over and over again.

On the mission of Quartz:
It’s not self-help; we’re not a trade vehicle, something that’s designed to help you with the day-to-day running of the business necessarily. But what you have is a lot of people who believe in the power of good journalism to move society forward, to help good ideas rise to the top and to help uncover negative issues when those arise.

On whether he feels that Quartz is a candle illuminating the darker side of social media and the Internet:
Yes, but I think there are many candles; I can’t claim that we’re the only flickering light in a dark storm. And I don’t think the storm is as dark as people claim it is. I believe that journalism is very alive and vibrant right now. It’s definitely very noisy and confusing, and yes; I think what we try to do is adhere to a certain set of principles that regardless of the noise that’s going on around us, our readers can rely on to get consistent quality from us.

On what makes him tick and click and motivates him to get out of bed every morning:
There are times when I feel like the luckiest guy in media. I was an English and History major in college and if you’d told me then that I would someday be the publisher of Wired and The Atlantic, of all things, and now this thing called Quartz, which if we do it right will be an iconic media property of its time, I would have either laughed you out of the room or said sign me up right now.

On what keeps him up at night:
The main thing that keeps me up at night in today’s ecosystem is finding and retaining great talent, particularly in the publishing business. The biggest resource that we have is our talent: designers, engineers, journalists, thinkers, ad sales people and writers. Without them you can have the most meaningful mission in the world, but you can’t necessarily execute on it.

And now the lightly edited transcription of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Jay Lauf, president and publisher, Quartz.

Samir Husni: You’ve been president and publisher at Quartz since 2012; can you briefly recap some of the most important achievements you’ve accomplished in the last three years and any stumbling blocks you’ve had to face and how you overcame them?

Jay Lauf: Sure, I’ll try and encapsulate that. I think some of the greatest achievements for Quartz over the last three years have to do with how quickly we’ve scaled. Starting with an audience of zero in September 2012 and ostensibly without any advertising; we achieved 10 million readers globally before we were 2½ years old. And to do that as rapidly as we did, I think is an achievement that we’re really proud of and frankly, a testament to the power of social word-spreading.

But scale isn’t the only attainment; the other thing we’ve achieved that we’re quite proud of is the right demographics. We had a very specific target demographic over the course of these first 2½ years that we were hoping to reach, which was and is global business professionals who are in decision-making roles and when you look at the syndicated research, we have achieved a really high-end audience of those 10 million people. And that’s been a really gratifying piece of the experience.

The other two quick things that I’d cite are one: what was then a novel approach to design, and by design I mean Big D and Small D design, Big D meaning user interface and really thinking about the systems, and Small D referring to aesthetic design, has actually changed the way some of the biggest bellwethers that we were hoping to compete with thought about doing their design, which is the sincerest form of flattery in a way. And those are the things; recognition is a high-quality vehicle, while scaling quickly has been really gratifying.

Lastly, on the business side of the equation, we’ve got over 125 blue-chip companies that have run advertising with us across the three years that we’ve been in existence. We’re doing everything custom, there’s no IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) standard advertising units on the page, so despite the fact that there could theoretically be challenges for these advertisers in terms of custom work, a price point that is much higher than your standard banner ad, I’ve got a better than 90%, at this point, renewal rate/retention rate with advertisers. So, clearly we’re doing something really well on that front.

Samir Husni: Do you think you could have achieved or actually done any of those things if you weren’t part of the Atlantic Media group and launched with that solid brand, which has been in business for over a century and a half, behind you?

Jay Lauf: That’s a really great question. Do I think we could have achieved what we have so far? Yes; I think the premise of Quartz and the independence of Quartz stands on its own, but there’s absolutely no question that the brand certainly helped by giving us a strong foundation and instant credibility, being born from a company that produces The Atlantic certainly helped with both, advertisers trusting us from the beginning and readership as well.

So, there’s no question that we had a head start and maybe it helped to accelerate us in the beginning much more quickly, but I think doing Quartz on its own would have been possible, just not nearly as easy.

Samir Husni: When you were offered the job at Ouartz; did you just immediately say yes and jump onboard, or did you step back and look at it from all perspectives? Can you recall your thoughts pre-September 2012 before Quartz actually began?

Jay Lauf: I have navigated most of the last 15 years of my career with my gut and my heart, quite frankly. I got the opportunity at Wired back in 2001 and the brand just got under my skin in a deep way and we were really passionate about the mission we were on.

But The Atlantic had been my favorite magazine; I’d been a subscriber for well over ten years before I received the first recruiting call from Justin Smith (then president of Atlantic Media). I went on the original interview for The Atlantic with Justin and David Bradley out of purely a fan-voiced curiosity. I really wanted to see who put The Atlantic together because I loved it and I had never met these guys before.

And when I did meet them, I realized how serious they were about pivoting The Atlantic to a digital-first position, and how determined they were to really make it a viable business. And I thought, wow, this is never going to come along again in my career and I took The Atlantic job as much out of passion as calculation. And when I did it at the time, people asked: are you crazy? You’re leaving Wired to go to The Atlantic? And people couldn’t understand why one would take what seemed like a step down. It ended up being one of the best moves of my career and I passionately advocated for that magazine and worked on it through the four years that I was there.

So, when the Quartz opportunity came about it was the first time that I was less about gut and more calculated, because that for me offered an opportunity to pick your buzz word, jump into a purely digital, social startup, but inside a company I already had equity with and one where I knew the owner and I knew the company and we knew each other. So, I just thought that an opportunity like Quartz was never going to come along again in my career and that I had to do it.

And three years later I’m as grateful that I made that decision as I was when I chose to go to The Atlantic in 2008.

Samir Husni: You used the phrase “digital-first” which was buzz words a few years back. Now we rarely hear “digital-first” or “print-first” phrases; we’re hearing more of what I mentioned in my new book “Audience First.” How did you approach your customers, whether that’s the advertiser or the reader, in a different way with Quartz than what was already out there, such as the two giants that you went after, FT (Financial Times) and The Economist?

Jay Lauf: The FT and The Economist may say that they do this as well, and perhaps they do, but from the beginning we have been zealous about a reader-first approach. So, if you look at the conventions that Quartz did away with as a reader-first approach, we realized our target audience is using mobile devices more than any other mechanism for reading and discovering the content. We realize that they don’t respond to banner ads and a lot of the commoditized ad units that one has on a website.

And so what we try to do every single day whether it’s through the lenses of advertising, content or design is to think about what would we want as users from this proposition? And what you discover is that if you respect the reader first, it’s not only because that’s great for the reader, it’s great for the publisher and the advertiser too. So, “reader-first” is absolutely at the heart of literally everything that we develop at Quartz.

Samir Husni: So, my reading won’t be preempted by a video that I have to watch first before I receive access to the content, unless I hit “skip ad?”

Jay Lauf: Correct. I’ve said publicly to keep myself honest, you will never see one of those interstitial takeovers that jumps in front of your reading experience and asks you politely to “wait 15 to 30 seconds” before you can read the content. We won’t do that. Kevin Delaney, my co-president, has said publicly that we won’t do pre-roll on Quartz. And sometimes I’m biting the back of my knuckle over that one, but we say that because we know that it’s a lousy user experience and there has to be a better way to have readers experience the advertising on our site.

Samir Husni: In these last three years, and I believe you’re celebrating exactly three years as we speak…

Jay Lauf: Yes, you’re right. Next week will be the actual three-year anniversary of Quartz.

Samir Husni: What has been that “wow” moment for you? That time during those three years when you said, yes, I made the right decision when I took the job at Quartz?

Jay Lauf: I would say halfway through, maybe toward the end of 2013. The first year of any startup you’re kind of just in a fog. You’re not really stepping back and assessing; you’re in the thick of it 24-7.

By the end of 2013 when we really started to see an acceleration of the business side and advertisers were really beginning to jump in and being very positive about what they were hearing from us; you could see in the tea leaves that 2014 was going to be a really strong year.

So, I would say that have to be it. By the Q4 of 2013 I could finally lift up and say, wow, this is actually starting to take off the way we had hoped it would.

Samir Husni: And do you think were it not for the financial backing of David Bradley a project like Quartz could have been started today? For example, could a random person who heard your story do the same thing without some very deep pockets? Does it take a lot of money and capital to achieve what you’ve achieved with Quartz or was it part luck, part good sense?

Jay Lauf: I think any success that’s as drastic as what we’ve achieved is part luck, and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably a charlatan. But there’s no question that having David’s backing was important. But I think it has as much to do with his support and fresh ideas and a willingness to take risks on those ideas, as it does his money that put us in a position to be as successful as this.

And it probably took less money than people might suspect in the first year. I’m not at liberty to discuss what those numbers would be, but the difference is we didn’t have to go out and pull together other shareholders, stakeholders and investors who may or may not have the same level of commitment that somebody like David does and expect a return on that investment far more quickly than he might. And we were liberated from that and I think that gave us the latitude and freedom to create something that was unlike what you had seen before. And that was distinctly reader-first, because sometimes when you’re building reader first, the pathway to monetization is not as direct as a much more commoditized thing.

Samir Husni: In just three short years, you are not only national but Quartz also has an international scope. Today you’re in South Africa, tomorrow you’re going to be in Nairobi, and the next day who knows? You have a network. How did you accomplish that? Was it the concept that attracted the international interest or was it the content? And what came first, the concept, the content or the audience?

Jay Lauf: Probably in the order that you just described. The concept was to be global from the beginning; to be distinctly post-national. We try to speak in a post-national voice. When Kevin Delaney first began to assemble his editorial team, he required that they speak at least two languages fluently and our first team of journalists that were with us at the very beginning spoke over 15 languages fluently and had reported from over 100 different countries in their careers.

So, I think that we achieved both a perspective and a tone of voice that appealed globally. From the first month and you might be surprised to learn this, we were 60% U.S. and the other 40% was outside the U.S. audience. By the end of the first year, we had been accessed in over 170 countries around the world. Today we are closer to something like 56/44 – 56% U.S. – 44% outside the U.S.

What’s amazing to me and just fascinating to observe, is that putting out great content and putting it on the free and open web, and again, without any local promotion in this market or any, actually grew a global audience. The audience found us through the sharing mechanisms that are now networked globally. And it’s pretty amazing.

Samir Husni: I’ve heard talk recently about the death of the homepage; is the homepage dead and do we now depend on social media to spread the word or links to articles? Having achieved what you’ve achieved in three short years; what’s your take on the homepage and its importance?

Jay Lauf: I think in the beginning we were correct and boldly said the homepage was dead and launched as you may remember, without a homepage at all. That level of focus allowed us to really spend our intellectual and financial resources on creating things besides the homepage that were actually going to be bigger drivers of traffic. So, it depends on how one defines “dead.” Eight to ten percent of our traffic comes to the homepage. And with 10 million readers globally, that means somewhere between 800,000 and one million readers come to the homepage.

That begins to change the way that we think about the homepage in the sense that’s a decently robust magazine subscription base. So, we have instituted what you would call a homepage as a way to treat that group of readers differently. We suspect there are two groups that come to the homepage: the real loyalists who want to come every single day and check out what we’re doing and then people who are discovering us for the first time. They may have heard about us and somebody may have said they should try Quartz or check into QZ.com.

So, signaling something different to those folks than you might to the person who discovers you more serendipitously in their feed or has already discovered you and therefore by habit is clicking on your link in their feed, means that you can probably do something different with the homepage.

But speaking in purest terms that the homepage is dead helps you rear-end your thinking around the convention that if not completely dead, then certainly not as important as it once was.

Samir Husni: Being Mr. Magazine™ I have to ask this question, is there a printed magazine in your future?

Jay Lauf: (Laughs) I’m done predicting the future; those of us who predict the future end up contradicting ourselves three or four years later. I will say there is a bunch of people on our team who love beautiful magazines. And a lot of the queues that we do in terms of design and advertising are taken from magazines. So, that’s certainly something that we talk about and have talked about. But there’s certainly nothing in the imminent future. But if we reconvened here ten years from now and it turned out there was a print version of Quartz, I wouldn’t fall off my chair.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Jay Lauf: I think the interesting thing to think about on the inside is we are an institution that recognizes that the economy is now global and increasingly interconnected and the world is getting smaller, but we do not want to come into these locales and tell the same stories that typical western media are telling over and over again. So, if you’re in Africa it’s pretty straightforward; it’s about political turmoil and crises; it’s about piracy.

But when you come to Africa, what you discover is that there’s vibrancy to the entrepreneurial community and to the business community that’s just beginning to take hold here. And no one is telling those stories; no one is helping Africans understand their place in the global economy or what the impact of the global economy is on them. And this is true not just in Africa, but in places like India, even in Asia, which have markets that have highly evolved media, but a lot of the media is very, sort of myopic and inward-facing. What we’re hoping to do all over the world is help people understand their place in this global economy and help them navigate the challenges and take hold of the opportunities that it presents for them.

So, I think that’s what’s on our mind when we come to places like Africa, is to try and understand what the stories are that no one is telling and that are actually interesting and related to the global economy.

Samir Husni: In the early stages of the 20th century, Professor Ben Patterson defined magazine publishing in America as two groups: the missionaries and the merchants. With the missionaries, they still want to make money and it’s a business, but they want to promote America the Great as well, they had a greater-good mission. And then there were the merchants who were strictly moneymaking and business. You reminded me of the missionaries as you were talking about Quartz; you’re on a mission. There’s that DNA of the whole concept of helping others from an economical and global point of view.

Jay Lauf: Yes; it’s not self-help; we’re not a trade vehicle, something that’s designed to help you with the day-to-day running of the business necessarily. But what you have is a lot of people who believe in the power of good journalism to move society forward, to help good ideas rise to the top and to help uncover negative issues when those arise.

And I think the cohering DNA of anybody who works at Quartz, whether you are on the editorial, engineering, or marketing teams, is a desire to figure out a way to make high-quality, intellectually rigorous journalism thrive in a digital age. And we feel like if we can figure that out, all of us will someday be able to look back on that chapter of our careers and say, wow, we really accomplished something that mattered.

Samir Husni: So, do you feel as though you’re a candle in the midst of this dark side of social media and the Internet? That you feel a social responsibility to journalism as opposed to gossip journalism?

Jay Lauf: Yes, but I think there are many candles; I can’t claim that we’re the only flickering light in a dark storm. And I don’t think the storm is as dark as people claim it is. I believe that journalism is very alive and vibrant right now. It’s definitely very noisy and confusing, and yes; I think what we try to do is adhere to a certain set of principles that regardless of the noise that’s going on around us, our readers can rely on to get consistent quality from us. And hopefully we lead the way sometimes in that.

Samir Husni: What makes you tick and click and motivates you to get out of bed every morning and say it’s going to be a great day?

Jay Lauf: There are times when I feel like the luckiest guy in media. I was an English and History major in college and if you’d told me then that I would someday be the publisher of Wired and The Atlantic, of all things, and now this thing called Quartz, which if we do it right will be an iconic media property of its time, I would have either laughed you out of the room or said sign me up right now.

I feel like I’m in graduate school every day. I’m smarter every day at the end of the day than I was when I came in that morning. And I get paid for that. That gets me up every day; it’s fun and dynamic.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Jay Lauf: The main thing that keeps me up at night in today’s ecosystem is finding and retaining great talent, particularly in the publishing business. The biggest resource that we have is our talent: designers, engineers, journalists, thinkers, ad sales people and writers. Without them you can have the most meaningful mission in the world, but you can’t necessarily execute on it. And it’s harder and harder because there are more and more options; we’re in an era where people are not loyal to companies and companies are not loyal to people. And people move around a lot, certainly in this industry space. So that’s what keeps me up at night; it’s how do I find the right people for the Quartz mission and how do we keep them excited about that every day.

Samir Husni: Thank you and until we meet in the States enjoy your journeys…

Sunset at Cape Town, South Africa...

Sunset at Cape Town, South Africa…

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