When Quartz launched in 2012, branded content and custom advertising were its bread and butter. Today, hoping to transform itself into a membership-focused media company and paring down the commercial side of its business in favor of what it says is a focus on doing bigger projects for fewer clients.
On June 26, Quartz laid off seven business-side employees, ranging from junior sales staff to a creative director. The cuts were the second batch of layoffs Quartz has endured this year; another four positions, about one-fifth of its U.K. commercial team, were eliminated at the beginning of 2019.
Altogether, Quartz has seen 25 people, close to 10% of the company headcount, depart either voluntarily or through layoffs over the past 12 months, a majority of them from the business side.
Though Quartz has done some hiring over that same stretch, including a pair of membership editors and several community and customer service specialists, it employs slightly fewer people today than it did at the start of 2019, down from 243 in January to 235, according to a company spokesperson.
The layoffs come as Quartz shifts its focus to paid subscriptions. Site traffic is down year over year, slipping 19% from 10.8 million U.S. users in May 2018 to 8.7 million U.S. users in May 2019, according to Google Analytics data provided by Quartz. That slide began in 2018, months before Quartz introduced a metered paywall in May 2019. The paywall has had a negligible effect on Quartz’s traffic, multiple sources said. A number of factors, including a focus on content that creates loyal readers rather than fly-by ones, and reporters working on members-only content in addition to their daily responsibilities, played a role in the drop, a source inside Quartz said.
That drop, while meaningful, is less stark than what had been depicted until recently in Comscore data. Due to a tagging error Comscore made, Quartz’s AMP audience dating back to August 2018 was not counted correctly by the measurement firm. Comscore corrected the error and put a notice in its system in July 2019.
In addition to the rounds of layoffs, several long-standing, high-profile employees have left on their own, including chief revenue officer Joy Robins, who joined The Washington Post in March. Two sources familiar with the matter said that some of the sales-side departures were motivated by feelings that there is a lack of opportunity in the department, as most of Quartz’s resources going toward the site’s membership program.
“People are expected to do more with less,” one source said.
“Yesterday we informed seven employees that their roles are being eliminated as we rebalance our team and resources to deliver on our strategy of fewer, bigger client engagements,” a Quartz rep said in a statement. “We are still hiring and investing in areas with high growth potential and look forward to several new product launches in the second half of the year.”
Ever since Quartz was acquired by the Japanese media company Uzabase last July, it has been busy transforming itself from an ad-supported publication powered by branded content into a membership-focused title dependent on several kinds of revenue, including membership dues, branded content, programmatic display and video production.
The membership program, which costs $14.99 per month or $150 per year, launched in November.
During that time, Quartz has shifted its advertising strategy toward bigger, more elaborate partnerships forged with fewer advertising partners. For example, where previous relationships with advertisers might have been transactional deals that cost advertisers a sum in the mid-five figures, Quartz’s sales team has emphasized working on larger programs, which might include custom research and digital product development, in addition to the creation of content that lives both on and off Quartz’s owned properties. Yet the layoffs have also strained the site’s sales and creative studio teams, sources said.
“Some [of these layoffs] make zero sense from a biz perspective,” a former employee wrote. “Unclear why those happened given the volume of work and quality we were expected to turn around.”
Concentrating its resources and product around supporting the membership product has also compelled Quartz to get rid of things that defined its brand in the early going, including the Quartz Brief, an award-winning mobile app that delivered the news in a text message-style format marked by the use of emoji and GIFs. The app will formally shut down July 1.
This story has been updated to include Quartz’s Google Analytics numbers and information about Comscore undercounting Quartz’s audience.
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