Media Moves and News

How Quartz’s special projects bring in revenue while maintaining integrity

July 19, 2016

Posted by Chris Roush

Lauren Brown
Lauren Brown

Lauren Brown is the special projects editor for Quartz.

She helps shapes editorial strategy, works on editorial products, and oversees the development special editorial projects.

Previously, Brown was Quartz’s deputy ideas editor. Before that, she was the contributors editor at Business Insider where she oversaw all contributors and syndication partnerships and was responsible for an overhaul of the entire program.

Brown received her master’s from Columbia’s School of Journalism where she specialized in digital media. She also worked for WorldNow, Wiley and was a contributing writer for Movmnt Magazine. She received her undergraduate degree from Cornell University where she majored in English and history.

Earlier this week, Quartz launched a special project called “Power Moves,” which looks at different industries and various types of people to learn how one can gain and wield power in various deal settings.

Power Moves is the third in a series of special projects from Quartz. Special projects differ from a series or an obsession because they are based around a more narrow theme and can often be sponsored and interactive. Power Moves is sponsored by TriNet.

Brown spoke by telephone with Talking Biz News about the special projects at Quartz. What follows is an edited transcript.

What exactly does a special projects editor do?

I am one of three people on the edit side that works with business in terms of discussing everyday editorial work. So everything from developing our editorial strategy and communicating that to marketing and sales, as well as working on special projects, which is something that we have been more committed to doing this year and next year.

So that is like our gift’s guide, where we asked people like Richard Branson about the best gifts they received. I coordinated all of that. It’s kind of a mixture of product management and being an editor and commissioning pieces.

We just moved offices, and we’re going to have an events space, so I will also be working on launching those events.

How does Quartz come up with the ideas for special projects?

In the past year, I’ve technically had this title. But I also had a team of reporters and was commissioning a lot of outside pieces. But now I’m doing this full-time and coming up with ideas. I was at Quartz at the beginning and have seen it grow so I understand what works, but I also want to try new ideas.

Some of them are mine, but I work very collaboratively and if there is a project I want to do that is very technical, I will work with the Things team. So it’s what we want to try out and what will be fun with our readers.

At what point do you talk with sponsors, and how much do they influence the content?

We are still figuring it out, like most digital media companies. Because of the way that the sales cycle works, and selling quarterly they need things far in advance, most of the projects we’re doing this year we started hammering out late last year. So it’s three to six months ironing out the concepts and what the stories might be and the visual treatments. Once that’s more in place, we give the go ahead to marketing.

The way I think this works and Quartz does this differently and in a way that as a journalist I am comfortable with it. It is not a creative shop for sales. These are journalistically editorial projects. It’s a way to fund the type of journalism that we want to do.

There are some times that a client will have an idea, and we may explore it, but only if it fits in with what Quartz is trying to accomplish and serves the readers. It’s not them pitching to us. If they had their druthers, they’d have a gift guide full of luxury products.

What’s the strategy for special projects in terms of what they contribute to Quartz?

It’s part of our mission that Quartz is for people who are excited by change. So it’s a way to go look and play with outside development. We are trying challenging things. What is exciting about journalism is trying new things and telling new stories about the global economy.

For example, we’re doing a special project where we’re looking at where some companies are innovating. This is a way to step back and slow down a little bit and present the thesis and then explore and examine it.

I imagine that it’s a way to influence some of the daily journalism that we’re doing, and some of the daily journalism that we’re doing informs the special projects.

How did Quartz decide on the special project for power and deals?

Screen Shot 2016-07-19 at 3.27.49 PMThat came about after the climate talks in Paris. One of our health writers in London did a story about the nature of an African tradition of meeting to resolve conflicts. We thought that was a smart idea, and wanted to look at other methods of negotiating.

One of our premises is that traditional business and management reporting can be boring, but people are always hungry for that type of content. We said, “What if we look at how deals are made and wield power, but from a nontraditional lens?” We talked to everyone from an animal behavioralist to a professor who studies the psychology behind food choices. It makes more interesting reads, and the stories are more fun. And they offer more interesting lessons.

How do you find writers for a special project?

This project was a combination of staff and freelance. Our Ideas section, which is what I used to work on, reached out to contributors. Sometimes we’ll pay for people we think are right. Other times, it will be all staff writers. So it just depends on the nature of the project. All of the illustrators are freelance.

We need to have some structure, but not be too prescriptive about it. I don’t want to work on a special project that I’m not interested in reading myself.

How long does a special project take from conception to publication, and what are the steps?

Six to nine months, but I’m hoping going forward it will be three to six months. After we pitch it, it’s just a matter of securing the pieces of the story and working on the visual treatment, hiring the freelancers.

At first, we work with our in-house designer. We’re looking for freelancers that can capture the aesthetics of what we’re communicating, and then working with journalists on the story list. There’s a lot of back and forth in terms of access. With this upcoming perfect company special project, we didn’t want a company where we didn’t have access. So in that respect, it takes a while. And communicating with our journalists in Africa and Europe, and working with our design team and head of product, to figure out what needs to be done from a development perspective.

So there is sometime a flurry of work to get material to marketing and flurry or work to get the art people and the journalists. And then you wait. And then there’s lots of editing and putting it together.

Is traffic for a special project higher or lower than other Quartz content?

I think it remains to be seen. That’s something we’re going to have to play with. They’re on their own standalone site, the gift guide and the power index. The sex worker story in the Power special project got a ton of traffic, just because it was a good story.

At the end of the day, we’re going to try to get press about them because we’re proud of them, but the traffic will reflect what stories people are interested in. So we’ll have four more stories next week and four the following week in the Power special project. There will be a video with one of the stories, and an interactive.

Traffic is not an explicit part of the mission. Traffic is just a proxy for us to understand our audience and that it is responding to what we’re doing. It’s risk taking and trying out new things. It’s a departure.

How many would you like to do each year?

This year, I think we’ll have five. Next year, we’re talking about six to seven. We’re working on some events and having an entrepreneur in residence. That’s also under my purview. It’s not just projects like these. It’s different initiatives that are project-based. It’s not just sale-able content.

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