Quartz Tried Literally Everything in Just 10 Years

Picture it: The date is October 25, 2012, and Quartz throws a launch party from the space-age future. Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Quartz (qz.com)

Quartz, a business publication, today announced its sale to G/O Media. “This is yet another chapter of several in Quartz’s history,” co-founder and now editor-in-chief Zach Seward tells me. But how many chapters? Over the last decade, Quartz has moved faster and broken more things than nearly any other publication. Is Quartz a cautionary tale for publishers? Or an inspirational one? You decide.

Quartz Era One: Experimentation, Success, and Luxurious Bespoke Advertising

Quartz launches in 2012 as a premium ad space, for fancy brands that love to reach business consumers, in the bosom of Atlantic Media. Everyone loves it. Quartz India launches 2014; Quartz Africa launches 2015. This is Original Quartz — “breaking ground in terms of article format — mobile first, then drafting on the back of building an audience through social,” says Seward.

Quartz Era Two: The Facebook Video Era and a Fun App

In 2016, Quartz achieves an operating profit — and launches a much-discussed chatbotlike app that is debated by media companies for months.

Quartz also rides a profitable but eventually exhausting and undermining industry wave, funded and delivered by Facebook, of native social video, going from “zero to 200 million video views.”

“We and many other publishers felt the pull of continued growth there. I don’t even regret it!” says Seward. “It meant that Quartz’s remit expanded greatly. Whether that was the right or wrong choice, then, when Facebook traffic went away, the most important thing was we had a distinguishable brand that was focused and for a certain type of reader.”

In late 2017: Quartz observes its fifth anniversary. It promises ambitious video series, a new culture-and-lifestyle vertical, and a new “at work” vertical.

Quartz Era Three: Acquisition and Crisis

As the Facebook era ends for publishers, Quartz enters its subscription era — and, in July 2018, sells to Uzabase, a public company based in Japan, for $86 million.

“Being acquired by a public company, I wouldn’t recommend it as a life experience for everyone, but it was super-interesting to go through,” Seward says.

Quartz is “a rare success in a media industry that continues to struggle to adapt to the internet” says the New York Times — though it notes that “despite its strengths, Quartz needs to shift its business model” to paid subscriptions. Uzabase says that, by 2023, it will be the most important business website in the world. Quartz agrees its next biggest source of growth will come from reader revenue; in late 2018, the membership program is rolled out. In 2019, a paywall descends. Also, two rounds of layoffs happen, both on the business side. That October, co-founder and editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney leaves, replaced with Harvard Business Review’s Katherine Bell. (Bell did not reply to inquiries.)

The company loses a ton of money: “In 2019, Quartz reported a $18.4 million loss on $26.9 million in revenue.” The next May, Quartz brutally lays off 80 people, nearly half its staff.

Then, six months later, in a very unusual move, Quartz buys itself back from its owner. “I have reached an agreement to acquire Quartz myself and take us private,” Seward writes at the time, and shares equity with the staff.

He plans to raise money, but cannot. The site is making about $11 million in revenue.

Through the pandemic, Quartz looks from the outside that it is scrambling through iterations of its business model. In August 2021, “Quartz refocuses subscription program on email newsletters for paying readers.” Then, in April of this year, “Quartz has permanently dropped its paywall,” replacing it with a regi-wall to harvest emails.

Quartz Era Four: Quartz Era One Redux? Check Back Next Year

“This is the end of Quartz as its own company,” Seward says.

Not having raised any money in its period of independence, and losing nearly $7 million last year, today Seward announced Quartz’s sale to G/O Media, which owns the remains of the Gawker Media Network and the Onion, the Root, and A/V Club.

He plans to eventually drop the general-manager title after the business transition and remain as editor-in-chief, with Bell departing. “I miss journalism! There’s nothing like running a newsroom,” he says. “All I get to write these days is memos and I pour a lot into those.”

Having a parent company also allows Quartz to return to what it was like in the beginning. “We’ve already made a bit of a return to original Quartz in our tone and approach,” Seward says, shortly before going to address the newsroom at 12:30 p.m. ET today. What does he expect from that meeting? Just like any other editor-in-chief, lots of questions about work from home.

Fortunately, or not, now he has a boss. G/O Media honcho Jim Spanfeller, often brutally dunked on by the company’s writers, apparently sent an announcement to the staff this morning with the subject line “Quarts News.”

Quartz can join the company’s other brands, for now, in sometimes benefitting from and sometimes fighting with management. “I’m looking forward to a more traditional workplace battle,” Seward says. “Not everything has to be existential all the time, as it sometimes felt.”

A Business History of Quartz