Quartz, the business news site that Atlantic Media launched in 2012, is a standalone entity, and so it has most of the same motivations and pressures as any other business publisher. In many ways, however, it’s also a kind of research and development lab for its parent company—an advance reconnaissance team of sorts, trying to figure out how content works online. And in doing so, Quartz is clearly taking some cues from BuzzFeed, especially as it relates to its video business.
In a note published on the site, editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney talks about the motivations behind the site’s new video strategy, and how it is creating a small team of video journalists who can experiment with the format. And in addition to the format and video techniques, Quartz also wants to experiment with the distribution of that content through various platforms. Says Delaney:
If there’s one media entity that has gone all-in on this kind of distributed approach to video, it’s BuzzFeed. The company set up a standalone video unit in 2012, headed by online personality Ze Frank, and it has since become a huge investment, with several hundred employees in Los Angeles and around the world creating both short and long-form videos. BuzzFeed recently reported that it generated more than 1 billion video views in a single month, and that number is still growing.
BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti has talked a number of times (including in a video interview with Re/code’s Peter Kafka) about how his company’s focus is not on driving traffic to its website, unlike most other media entities and publishers. Instead, BuzzFeed wants to create content of all kinds that exists within specific networks and platforms. In many cases, that content doesn’t even contain a link to the company’s website.
Quartz has clearly been paying attention. Zach Seward, executive editor and vice-president of product, recently wrote a piece for the Nieman Journalism Lab in which he talked about how Quartz sees itself not as a website or a publisher but more as an API (a term that software developers use, which stands for “application programming interface”). And by that—as I tried to explain in a post here—he means that Quartz wants to be as platform-agnostic about its content as possible.
The obvious question, for both BuzzFeed and Quartz, is how this strategy affects their ability to monetize their content. If the video lives in a network or platform like Facebook, and doesn’t drive clicks back to the Quartz website, then how does that help the company make money? YouTube does revenue sharing, but Facebook doesn’t give publishers a lot of leeway to monetize their own content, apart from a few high-profile deals with major TV networks and sports leagues.
Native advertising is one answer. Both BuzzFeed and Quartz are relying on this for some or all of their monetization efforts, and in a sense their distributed content functions as an ad for their own services, which says: “We understand how to make content shareable, and we can do that for your content too.”
In the short term, Quartz doesn’t seem to be overly concerned about this problem. In his post, Delaney says that the site is “liberating” its video team from ad inventory requirements and “preconceptions about what they produce should look like.” In other words, it is experimenting with formats and distribution models, in order to see which make the most sense for different types of content. Peretti has said BuzzFeed continues to do the same thing with different networks, and wants to add more.
Other media companies are also experimenting in similar ways: Fortune, for example, recently announced a video project called “The Chat,” in which interviews with newsmakers of various kinds will be hosted on Facebook—and will also incorporate questions from Facebook users, similar to Reddit’s popular “Ask Me Anything” feature.
The risk of this kind of distributed strategy, especially as it pertains to Facebook, is that the social network itself becomes the main beneficiary of the content that is hosted on its platform, not the actual content creator. That’s why so many are skeptical about Facebook’s “Instant Articles” initiative (although at least publishers in that arrangement get some or all of the revenue from their ads).
The question for BuzzFeed and those who aim to pursue a similar approach is whether they can generate enough value from their networked strategy to justify the effort they put into it. Will there be enough of a “halo effect” for content creators, or will Facebook and other platforms get the lion’s share of the benefits?