Quartz: New Hope or New Hype?

Quartz, the new business news site launched this week by Atlantic Media, has had good advance press. "Any good blog or magazine has defining obsessions, and we'll structure around the ones that we think smart, globally minded people will be interested in," the publisher told David Carr in a friendly piece in the New York Times.

Jeff Sonderman at Poynter called it "another digital news start-up that gets a lot of pre-launch attention for its intention to do things differently...." It will have a "tablet-first focus," Sonderman wrote, an "elite audience," and it will be free, with ads and "sponsored content." And there will be no "beats" at the paper.

Let's look at those one at a time. A tablet-first focus? I'm not sure that distinguishes it from dozens of news sites I already peruse on my iPad. Whether or not a site is tablet-first (and I'm not sure what that means), what readers care about is whether it's easy and pleasant to read, or not.

An "elite audience"? We'll see. Easier said than done.

Free and supported by ads? Not much new there. But "sponsored content"? That's a minefield. Will the site draw a firm line between ads and editorial content, so readers know which is which without looking for the fine print?

And no beats. Quartz's global news editor, Gideon Lichfield, wrote on his blog that beats were devised as "a convenient management tool" for newspapers that came in sections. But "when there are no pages and sections to constrain you, you are free to reframe your description of reality, too." So instead of beats, Quartz will structure itself "around an ever-evolving collection of phenomena." Some of Lichfield's examples:

"Financial markets" is a beat, but "the financial crisis" is a phenomenon. "The environment" is a beat, but "climate change" is a phenomenon. "Energy" is a beat, but "the global surge of energy abundance" is a phenomenon. "China" is a beat, but "Chinese investment in Africa" is a phenomenon. We call these phenomena our "obsessions."

Those distinctions don't mean a whole lot to me. Dropping coverage of markets for coverage of crisis seems to limit what a reporter can write about, and it also seems to prejudge what the stories are going to say. Will there be room for stories about financial activity that isn't in a crisis? Swapping beats for "obsessions" seems to me to limit the coverage rather than energize it.

I spent some time browsing through the site this morning, and it's not bad. I don't think it justifies the pre-launch hype, and I can't detect how the focus on obsessions rather than beats has changed the product. I'll be interested to see how they deal with readers' obsessions about, say, biotechnology, the aerospace industry, healthcare, the pharmaceutical industry, and environmental regulations.

Let me take a crack at it: The pharmaceutical industry is a beat, but the rise in autism is an obsession? Where does that leave room for coverage of drugs for AIDS, ADHD, cancer, asthma, and heart disease -- and other "beats" of great interest to the sought-after elite audiences who run the companies that make those things?

I'm not dismissing Quartz; it might turn out to be wonderful, and new sites need time to get in a groove. But I'm not buying the pre-launch hype until Quartz can convince me that it was deserved.

A version of this post originally appeared at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.