News Distribution

News as a dialogue: Quartz launches its app

Major Points


Pfeiffer Consulting

In the flurry of publishers’ apps that has been hitting the market over the past few years, the one which was just launched by Quartz, the mobile-focused digital-only publisher backed by The Atlantic, certainly stands out: instead of allowing you to quickly access top stories from the site in a mobile-friendly way, which is the hallmark of publisher’s apps  such as NYT Now or Guardian, or presenting a small selection of short news items in the fashion of The Economist's Espresso, Quartz-the-app uses the interface of a chat environment à la WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger to present you with a small selection of items culled from the publisher’s site, and let’s you interact in a chat-like way, to access more details about an item, or to dismiss it. It’s definitely a novel approach - If you are interested in a detailed description of the app, you can find one here and here, and of course on the publisher’s website.

Whether or not Quartz-the-app will be a runaway success or remain an oddity appreciated by a niche audience has impossible to tell at this point. What the app however definitely does achieve, is to underline to what extent news delivery has become a forefront in the battle of digital publishing - and how incredibly diverse it has become.

And these are questions publishers have been wrestling with for a while now. What is it a majority of readers want? How much curation is needed? How much news is perceived as too much or too little? There is no consensus on this front: Morning-birefing apps à la NYT Now or La Matinale by Le Monde in France are appearing everywhere, and they all battle with the same problem: Users have dozens of apps on their phones - but only use a handful at best on a daily basis. How do you make your way into users’ hearts? Notification apps such as Facebooks Notify require too much manual fine-tuning to become truly useful for a mainstream user; Espresso is an original approach, yet this humble observer at least tired quickly of the shorter than necessary list of tidbits of information. News aggregation apps such as Apple’s News or Flipboard, on the other hand, all suffer from a severe information overload problem, and can quickly wind up feeling like a digital version of an airport lounge with too many free magazines and newspapers you don’t really want to read. (It may seem anachronistic, but after a while, a daily printed paper from a trusted source can feel like a monument of efficiency in presenting a wide variety of information in an easily browsable format.)

Vive la Fragmentation!

What that profusion of different approaches tells me, is that the market is maturing - and in that process, Quartz-the-app is, I believe, an interesting step, and one that is likely to inspire other publishers, even though some users may find the chat-like approach gimmicky, and, worse, inefficient, especially compared with Quartz’s own excellent newsletter.

But all that is besides the point. Perhaps the most important thing Quartz-the-app shows us that there is no single best way of formatting news any more. We will have to live with the idea that we as users are likely to jump around between different approaches on a permanent basis. News is not a one-size fits all category : what we need and want from a news app is not a fixed set of requirements, but a subtle mix of many variables that change every day for us, depending on our mood, our time-table, our mode of transporation to and from work - and, yes, maybe even the weather. So don’t expect a brilliant, one-size fits all killer-news-app any time soon - rather, one should finally accept that we need and expect more and more diversity in the ways news are delivered to us.

Publishers are confronted millions of users who are getting more and more adept in using a wide variety of different news apps depending on their precise situation at one given point in time. Speaking as a user, I notice how my own news-gathering process is constantly evolving and changing. There are phases where, living in Paris, I use La Matinale or Médiapart every day - and then I forget about them for weeks. The same goes for NYT Now, Guardian’s excellent app, or several others. There is no pattern or regularity, just the realization that my personal needs for information are in constant flux depending on a sizable number of variables.

It is probably a safe bet that the same is true for a large number of user who are getting their news through their mobile devices. So instead of constantly expecting the “next big thing” (It’s Snapchat! No, Line is really hot! Forget about Line, Facebook rules..) we should just start accepting the fact that, as user’s become more savvy with their devices we have to live with increasing fragmentation in the ways we are getting news, and that, even if none of them becomes a runaway success, they are all necessary and serve a purpose: to make the news-gathering process as diverse as our ever-changing needs for information.

Andreas Pfeiffer, February 15, 2016