When it comes to new digital-media entities, I find Quartz one of the most consistently interesting. BuzzFeed is huge and growing and clearly understands how content works in a viral age, and so does Vice Media, and there are a number of other smaller players that are doing interesting things, but Quartz stands out for a number of reasons. One of those is that it’s an ambitious effort by an existing entity, namely 158-year-old magazine publisher Atlantic Media. The other is that Quartz thinks very differently about what its role is in the media landscape and how to achieve what it wants to achieve.
Zach Seward, who is the head of product for Quartz (a title that in itself is unusual for a media company), wrote about this in a recent post for the Nieman Journalism Lab, which is well worth reading even if you aren’t in the media business. In it, Seward says that the way that Quartz behaves and the way it looks at the media landscape is driven by the fact that the company sees itself “as an API.”
What does that mean exactly? An API is an application programming interface—a series of software instructions and tools for extracting and displaying data from a specific service. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook and Google have public APIs, which in turn allow programmers to build features into their apps and services that pull in data from those platforms and then display it in different ways. So Netflix, for example, can pull in a list of your Facebook friends and let you share the shows you’re watching with them.
As Seward notes in his post, Quartz is not just figuratively but also literally an API: before the site was even created, the company designed and built the API for collecting and organizing content of various kinds. The website at qz.com uses this API to get and publish data on the site and elsewhere, but the actual website is just one specific user of the API—it may be the most important one right now, but that’s not to say there couldn’t be many others. As Seward puts it:
“When you look around Quartz, you start to see this everywhere. The Daily Brief is perhaps the best example: Its success is due to writing the email as its own thing, intended simply to be the best morning briefing on the global economy that one could receive. No easy task, but the purity of that mission is what makes the Daily Brief shine. We’re not trying to drive traffic to qz.com; it lives natively in your inbox.”
What Seward means with his analogy is that instead of seeing itself as a single, standalone website that publishes content and monetizes it with ads, Quartz instead sees itself as a provider of information—a kind of information-processing engine—that can deliver that information or content in a number of ways. In some cases it will be stories on a website, but it might also be an email newsletter, or video posts that live on Facebook, or charts that live wherever they are needed on the web.
The last part of Seward’s statement above is the most important: instead of seeing all of the various formats or platforms that it uses as just a way of driving more clicks to a website, Quartz sees them as worthwhile in and of themselves. While the site’s content may not be monetized directly on that platform, it helps build the company’s brand and its knowledge about other platforms and social tools, which in turn allow it to monetize its content better on the Quartz site, which it does through native advertising.
Although Seward doesn’t mention it, this is very similar to the way that BuzzFeed looks at its content, and why it created a unit called BuzzFeed Distributed, which creates content that lives on specific platforms like Snapchat and Instagram rather than always pushing for clicks.
BuzzFeed publisher Dao Nguyen wrote about this approach recently in the context of the company’s partnership with Facebook, where it is part of the Instant Articles project. She called what BuzzFeed is doing “network-integrated media” and said that what it allows the company to do is spread a variety of content among different platforms and then watch to see what the data shows about how different audiences interact with it. That in turn helps BuzzFeed get better at making content.
This strategy is one reason why BuzzFeed isn’t as concerned about a deal like the one that Facebook is offering with Instant Articles, because unlike the New York Times and other media outlets, it doesn’t live or die on whether it gets people to click through to its site. The content it puts on Facebook succeeds or fails on its own terms, and then BuzzFeed uses those lessons to make what it does on its own website better. And one of the big benefits of this approach is that it makes BuzzFeed and Quartz and others like them a lot less reliant on external platforms as a means of driving clicks.