‘Civilisation at risk’ if media can’t find a working business model, says publisher of digital news outlet Quartz

Jay Lauf says his publication has found a way that works and it’s like taking a ‘front row seat on history’

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 March, 2017, 8:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 March, 2017, 12:06pm

“I feel privileged, in a weird way, to be living at this point in history,” says Jay Lauf, co-CEO and publisher of digital news outlet Quartz.

“We are at an inflexion point at the development of media, technology and society – it’s like a front row seat on history.”

Not all publishers would agree, however. While, few industries have been immune from the impact of the internet and digital technology, the media has been particularly hard hit.

Readers are quite simply less willing to pay for news and analysis than they were, while crucially for the bottom line, advertisers have far more options available to them.

The result, as British media commentator Roy Greenslade wrote in a recent article, is that “Newsprint pounds have been replaced by digital pennies”.

Hong Kong too has been hit by the penny-pinchers. At the end of last year, Next Digital, publisher of Apple Daily among others, issued a profit warning citing a 24.8 per cent fall in the overall advertising revenue and circulation income of the group’s publications in Hong Kong and Taiwan citing digital rivals as the cause.

For Lauf, the implications are serious.

“A free and open press is the underpinning of a free society,” he said. “If we don’t figure out business models that allow intellectually rigorous and honest news outlets to exist, then civilisation as we know it is at risk.”

However, Quartz – founded by US Atlantic media group in 2012 — has bucked the trend, last week announcing a profit for 2016, which Lauf said was “hopeful for everyone”.

“People are worried that all our reliable sources of news will go out of business or be subsumed by fake news – I just don’t believe it,” he said.

A free and open press is the underpinning of a free society. If we don’t figure out business models that allow intellectually rigorous and honest news outlets to exist, then civilisation as we know it is at risk
Jay Lauf, co-CEO and publisher of digital news outlet Quartz

“You can root for us or against us, but as citizens we want high-quality intellectually rigorous journalism to survive. I hope we’re showing that it can.”

Quartz is continuing to expand and is hoping to add another 68 staff to its global 190-strong team.

One reason for its success, adds Lauf, is that Quartz has adopted a slightly different advertising model from other news organisations.

As publishers migrated to the internet, with banner advertisements at the top of a page and invasive pop adverts as part of their offerings, Lauf said that this has not worked and only led to adblockers – software used by readers to remove advertisements from their browser page.

“Advertisers do not pay much for them [banner ads] and then for the publishers the incentives are inverse,” he said.

“Either produce clickbait [something, such as a headline, designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink] to generate more traffic."

Instead, readers on Quartz scroll through articles, one after another, with larger spaces for advertising in between the articles.

Lauf said that Quartz has a 90 per cent retention rate of advertisers, “which is nice, as I can make a living”.

It also makes significant revenue from “native advertising”, or paid-for editorial content, historically called advertorials, though Lauf rejects the idea that too many publishers and advertisers are trying to pass off advertisements as pure editorial.

“All the data I have run over nine years, both at Atlantic and Quartz, says the more clearly labelled the content marketing is as paid-for content, the better it performs, because people have chosen to interact with it.”

As for the future of media, Lauf emphasises the importance of mobile.

“Traversing that chasm [from online to mobile] is a lot more challenging than taking print and jamming it onto the desktop,” he said.

“A phone is a much more interactive device, you have someone’s attention much more deeply captured than you would on a desktop when you have multiple browsers open,” he adds.

“What we need to do is serve the kind of user in a way that’s much more native to the device and leverages the advantages of the device.”

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