Aug 1, 2013

Quartz’s Email-centric News Coverage

Senior editor Zach Seward describes Quartz as a "free, digital-only business news outlet focused on a global audience that increasingly gets its news on smartphones and tablets." The forward-thinking web publication, which is the latest addition to the Atlantic Media empire’s stacked lineup, also sends an email called the Quartz Daily Brief each morning. (MailChimp’s CEO, Ben, thinks of it as his morning newspaper. Dave Pell’s Next Draft is his afternoon newspaper.) "It’s such a privilege, to be inside our readers’ inboxes each morning," Zach says. "We knew we’d have to earn it, but it seemed worth the challenge."

The original social media

For a publication striving to "embody the era in which it is being created," email was the obvious choice for Quartz. "Email is kind of the original social media, right?" he says. "It’s how people share the most important things with their most important contacts. We also figured that as people spend more and more of their time on phones, email would become only more important. And it’s a good way to stay in touch with our most loyal readers at a time when people are consuming a wider array of sources and are less likely to visit homepages."

Content for cross-platform lives

"A lot of publishers have old email templates that force you to pinch, zoom, and scroll to read them on a smartphone," Zach says. "Others, trying to solve the problem, use text-only emails. The Quartz Daily Brief is pretty text-heavy, but we have an image on top and have thought about including other images." Thanks to Quartz’s responsive template, their content—including those images—looks great everywhere.

Quartz’s only loyalty is to getting the best story for its readers, and making sure that story looks great no matter where it’s being read. (Remember that "increasingly on smartphones and tablets" bit above?) Whether one of its 20 reporters—spread out across New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Asia, Europe, South Africa, and India—write it, or they find it elsewhere and link away, is unimportant. "Our only objective is to write the best possible morning news briefing that we can," Zach says. "If you start with that premise, it’s clear that we should link to whatever sources best serve our readers, whether that’s us or other news organizations. Our readers will like us for it, and reward us by opening our emails, which they do at a crazy-high rate."

Learning from their audience

They pay attention to those readers, too, learning from the things they click—and don’t click—on. "We look at that pretty closely," Zach says. "In general, we see that people don’t much click on links in the first half of the email, which makes sense since those are part of pretty concise news summaries. But they click a lot on the links to opinion pieces and ‘random discoveries’ that we include in the second half of the email, which also makes sense. Sometimes we notice a particular link is really popular among our readers and assign a follow-up story for Quartz based on that. So there’s a bit of a feedback loop in the click data."

A team effort

Each Quartz Daily Brief, from start to finish, involves about five or six people. "Generally one person writes and one person edits and sends, per edition," associate general manager Sara Lerner says. The Quartz team built a plugin to integrate MailChimp with their custom WordPress content management system. They use permissions so that only editors can send the campaigns, but everything happens within one interface. With readers and contributors spread out all over the world, though, it’s the sending and subsequent updates where things can sometimes get a little complicated.

"We actually send three editions of the Daily Brief every day, so it can arrive in the morning no matter where you are in the world," Zach explains. "Typically, one of our reporters in the United States—it’s a different writer each week—pulls together the first draft of the email in the afternoon on, say, Tuesday. That’s edited in the U.S. as well, and sent to our readers in Asia, where it’s already Wednesday morning. (We aim to hit inboxes by 6 am in Hong Kong, London, and New York, respectively.) About six hours later, reporters and editors in Asia update the email to reflect any new information and send out the Europe edition. Finally, the Americas edition is sent from Asia or Europe about 12 hours after the whole process began in the U.S. It’s a lot of work, but our readers seem to think it’s worth the effort, which is all that matters."