Imagine a news outlet that’s run like a Silicon Valley startup. Slack replaces the traditional editorial calendar. Teams convene and collaborate online from around the globe. Headlines come to your phone via chatbot, complete with sassy quips and gifs.
It’s called Quartz, and they’ve been innovating on how people cover and consume the news since their inception in 2012. Since then, they’ve grown rapidly but haven’t lost the scrappy startup attitude that buoyed them in their early days in a New York City loft.
They continue to push the envelope and expectations of an audience and industry steeped in — and, perhaps, shackled by — tradition.
Editor-in-chief, co-founder, and co-president Kevin J. Delaney seems like the personification of Quartz’s tech-centric approach to journalism and news media.
Before taking on his current role(s) at Quartz, he was a journalist at the Wall Street Journal for more the 16 years. While there, he served as foreign correspondent in the Paris Bureau, reporting on business, tech, and politics across Europe. He also covered internet companies like Google, Facebook, and Yahoo while living in San Francisco.
You can follow his technophile past even earlier than that. As editor of his university newspaper, he led a team who was uploading their newspapers to pre-decessors of the web, and he was using digital technology to edit video in the early 90s.
I caught up with Delaney over the phone, and we chatted for more than an hour, touching on topics that ranged from hiring a diverse team, to management in a fairly flat organization, to the unique ways they use Slack.
Here’s our conversation, edited for brevity.
It seems like the culture of Quartz is to be very forward thinking. How have you gone about building that culture?
I think we have a broad ownership of the company culture, and part of the reason that’s been true historically is because we were a startup. We’re a startup within a bigger company. Atlantic Media owns the Atlantic Magazine and some other media properties, and we were started as a separate standalone unit within that organization.
We started in New York in this loft that didn’t have any furniture, so the result is that the culture was formed by the people, and who we hired, and the practices that we established.
Culture, in a way, was operationalized.
How did you maintain your culture as you grew?
When you’re a startup, your culture is your operations. It’s a bit like strategy; you can have a strategy, but when you’re small, your strategy is effectively your operations and what you execute on.
I think we’ve defined a pretty core culture around that, and more recently have done more to both articulate and communicate the culture of the place and have a bit of structure around that.
We do annual employee surveys, we have a town hall meeting, we have an operating committee which is a group of the top managers who meets and collectively owns the culture of the place.
Plus, in the newsroom, we have that we call a Talent Lab, which is a two-person team whose job is to find extraordinary talent wherever it is in the world and bring it to Quartz, and also support the development and expression of the talent internally.
What’s the management structure like at Quartz?
It’s a very flat organization, but what we’ve done is codify the leadership with this operating committee that meets once a week and is responsible for decisions that cross teams and cross the organization.
Despite being fairly flat, over the last year we’ve clarified the responsibility that each individual manager has, so that there are fewer areas where it’s ambiguous, where there could be three or four people who have responsibility for it.
How would you define company culture at Quartz? How would you define company culture in general?
I think company culture is the bedrock of the operations because it’s the shared assumptions about what you’re doing and how you work together. In the end, your culture is effectively what guides people in moments where there’s not a clear policy or clear responsibility.
With our startup in particular, we don’t have 100 years of practices so that every scenario is codified. In fact, most scenarios are not codified.
Company culture is the shorthand that people use or the assumptions that people have about how we’ll approach things. That is ultimately been one of the biggest determinants of success.
There’s that famous quote attributed to management thinker Peter Drucker:, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I kind of agree with that.
I think it applies to bigger companies as well, where they may have codified procedures for different scenarios but as everyone knows organizations need to be resilient and adaptive, and culture is what allows you to be adaptive and succeed over time to a changing landscape.
Could you speak a little bit more about your operating committee and how it’s changed things since you started it?
We started it last year, and we meet weekly at 9am on Monday mornings. We have a pretty structured agenda. We use a meeting structure that’s borrowed from holacracy, loosely. We’re not a holacratic organization more broadly but it involves check-ins and updates, which are sent around ahead of time from each participant and then people flag items for discussion. Then there’s a discussion, and then we close the meeting with going around and asking everyone to say something briefly.
That structure works really well, and it creates transparency about what’s going on in different parts of the company. There are lots of people who are important leaders and contributors across Quartz at this point, but this group is like the representative assembly, it’s like our parliament.
You wouldn’t define parliament as the most important people in a country, but you define it as the representative people. There’s an overlap between seniority of leadership and how representative someone is, but the representative part of it was a guide in creating this group.
You have a team of journalists working remotely all over the world. What sort of challenges do you face in working with people who are outside of your office?
I think since we built [Quartz] from scratch, we’re able to have an organization that functions almost entirely on cloud-based productivity tools. Our content management system is cloud based, and we use Slack, and we have Google Docs, and we invested in Blue Jeans which is a pretty good, reliable video conferencing setup for everybody so that it wasn’t a disadvantage to be in a meeting if you were dialing in from somewhere else.
We bring people to New York, or our managers travel a fair bit to try and make sure that everyone is being touched by other parts of the organization.
Does bringing people to New York help create that sense of unity in the culture?
Yeah. I think that’s important that at some point there is a face-to-face, in-person meeting. When people come to New York or go to one of our other regional hubs they say, “That was such a good time. I understand things so much better and I know who does what.” I think that’s important.
Quartz’s mission is to be a guide in the new global economy. How does that mission impact the culture and just overall what it’s like to work there?
From the very beginning, we wanted to make sure that our staff was representative of our readers, and we wanted readers who were post-national, in the sense that they might live and work in a country other than the one they were born, or they went to university or have a personal understanding of a world that goes beyond their own borders.
As soon as we could, we hired people outside of the US. We also hired a staff globally who have a deeply international background. Some significant percentage of our staff speaks at least two languages or more, and collectively I think just the editorial team speaks close to 40 different languages. That’s really important.
It’s worth noting that, in different geographies, we make sure that we hire people who know the geographies. We’re not just parachuting journalists in, like in the traditional model. We want people who understand the geography but also have experience of the world.
In terms of the concept of “culture fit,” it sounds like for you, the fit is in the diversity.
That’s exactly right.
If you had one piece of advice for leaders of companies who are growing like yours is, what would it be?
I think it’s easy to underestimate the importance of communication around your priorities and who you think you are as an organization.
When you’re small, that happens organically by osmosis as part of the process of creation, but if you’re a growing organization you sometimes realize too late that requires more deliberate communication.
As someone who thinks so deeply about new technologies and changes in the media, are there any changes that you see to the future of work?
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I think it’s pretty clear that there’s some level of digital tools, automation, artificial intelligence that will affect all of us, and I think it’s unclear the extent to which it’ll happen behind the scenes, or that it’s bots that we’re engaging with and that are supporting us. But I think the work environment for knowledge workers and for everyone five years from now will look dramatically different than it does today.
We’re using things like Microsoft Office. They’re productivity tools that were designed around notions about product and work from 20-30 years ago.
A lot of the cloud-based stuff like Google Docs and G Suite take it to a different level because they allow collaboration, and allow you to access across different devices, and hyperlink to things.
It does take it a different level but I don’t think that the overall work productivity paradigm has been decided for eternity. I think a lot of the changes in terms of structure, automation, technology, broadly haven’t fully filtered into what our work and our workplace looks like.
I think that’s really interesting and exciting. I think how we use Slack and how we’ve implemented it and the workflow that is the assumptions that’s part of Slack I think are a primitive form of what I’m thinking about—but it’s clearly going to go much farther.
You think in terms of the product of Slack, or the way your team specifically uses it?
Just the way we’re using it. I think Slack is a really interesting tool and clearly has a lot of room to improve and expand.
There is a workflow that’s an assumption about our organization that’s built into how we’ve organized ourselves on Slack in terms of the channels. The function that they serve, I think that it’s really interesting.
Just to give you an example, for the newsroom there’s an editorial channel, which is where the newsroom folks chat about things and it could range from “Happy birthday Kevin,” to “Wow there’s this news breaking we should do something about it, I have this idea.”
Then there’s a channel which is “edit assignments,” which is when someone is now moved to the next stage, writing on it, and they say what they’re planning to do, and what time they’re going to deliver it, and how long it’s going to be.
Then there’s a production channel which is where they drop the link to the story for an editor to grab. Then, when it’s published, a link appears in another channel. That’s just one example.
That’s actually a workflow, and what’s interesting is that anybody in the organization can see the entire workflow of the entire newsroom. Anybody in the news side of the organization can see the entire workflow of the newsroom, which is great, and empowering, and powerful that I can go and see already what someone is planning to write about, some news that happened.
Either they’ll be reassured that we’re on it or see the angle that they’re taking and reach out to them and say, “Hey I have this source I think it might be helpful for you.” Or “Did you think about this other way of approaching it instead? I think that might be interesting.”
We also have some automated things where we have bots that are communicating in different channels about the status of news or stories. Effectively we have mini AI helpers who are communicating in the same channels with the staff—but what I just described is still fairly primitive relative to where the potential is.
I’ve actually never heard of anyone using Slack in that way before. I’m so fascinated to hear how other people use Slack because it’s such a blank slate kind of tool.
Yeah. I think people don’t fully recognize that you’re encoding your culture, your organization, your priorities into how you set up and use Slack.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about culture at Quartz, or leadership, or anything like that?
Yes, the parent company of Quartz, Atlantic Media, has pretty strong culture as well. There are two foundational values that we talk about when we’re recruiting people.
The values are “Force of ideas,” which is basically that we want people who are intellectually engaged, curious, and smart. The other one is “Generosity of spirit,” which is the idea that they’re team players and their bias is towards empathy and working with other people.
It’s easy to say these things, and I think a lot of companies do, but they’re values that are very present in our company and people reference them a lot. That’s a little bit different from the question of culture at Quartz I think, but it definitely feeds into it and is part of the foundation for what we’re doing.
To learn more about Quartz, check out this article, which inspired me to reach out to Delaney for an interview. In it, he talks in depth about how they’ve scaled their culture as they’ve grown (and how something weird happens when companies reach 150 employees).