R.I.P. Quartz Brief, the innovative mobile news app. Maybe “chatting with the news” isn’t something most people really want to do?

This post is by Joshua Benton from Nieman Lab

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Quartz Brief, the truly original mobile news app built around a chat interface and bots pre-fed with human prose, will die July 1, Digiday has reported. It was 3 years old. It is survived by a different app that last year took its predecessor’s name — just plain ol’ Quartz — and a lengthy list of laudatory tweets from media people like me. When the Quartz app debuted in 2016, it was immediately clear that it would be a big step away from the news app mainstream. No list of headlines here; a first-time user saw what looked like a chat interface, familiar from whatever app they use to trade barbs with friends, and a sort of textual uncanny valley: Am I talking with a bot? A person? A news organization? The answer was a combination of all three. In real time, the app’s prose was being
by software; there wasn’t some thumb-sore intern responding to each and every user 24/7. But those words were written by real Quartz staffers, one tasked with condensing an interesting story into a script of back-and-forth responses that encouraged engagement with the story and felt human. And in a sense, you really were chatting with the news organization itself; as Quartz’s Zach Seward put it before the app even launched, “Quartz is an API” and all of its products expressions of its core editorial mission:
The developers among us have tried to keep me honest about the limits of this metaphor. In some respects, it’s literally true; in others, it’s just a concept. For the less technical among us, know that an API is how an application speaks to a server to get fresh data for users…Our philosophy has always been to put as little friction as possible between us and our readers, and our API is an advantage in living up to that ideal… So when we say Quartz is an API, we don’t mean publish once and send it everywhere. We mean Quartz can go anywhere our readers are, in whatever form is appropriate…What’s most striking about that is what sits in the middle: our brand. In this environment, it’s the most important thing: We are a guide to the new global economy for smart, worldly people. That drives our editorial mission, our product vision, and our commercial business. And the specific forms that takes is the challenge we’re all here to tackle.

If you want to hear more about the thinking behind the app, check out this video of him presenting it at the 2016 ISOJ. (Bias alert: Zach was my first hire at Nieman Lab back in 2008.) This app’s demise probably shouldn’t be viewed as a defining verdict on chat interfaces; there were other factors at play. Quartz was acquired by the Japanese news company Uzabase last summer, and a few months later it launched a new Quartz app that was based on an existing Uzabase app, NewsPicks. (NewsPicks had launched earlier in English and had trouble gaining users.) The old Quartz app was renamed to Quartz Brief and kept alive, but the writing was on the wall. Last month, Quartz put its web content behind a metered paywall to push its membership program amid a declining web audience. But it is also true that Quartz Brief never attracted a particularly large audience, averaging 23,000 downloads a month. In media circles, there were a lot of people like me who admired the app’s ideas and execution enormously — but also didn’t really use it. There will continue to be interesting experiments around using chat interfaces in news; they’ll work best in specific niches, they’ll be a challenge to integrate into existing news flows, and they’ll still have to figure out the right balance between personal-but-expensive-to-run and bot-driven-but-not-all-that-good. But who knows? Talk to me in five years and this might have all changed. But my takeaway from all these moves is that there’s little evidence people want to chat with news organizations, at least not at scale, and that trying to nose our way into their private spaces isn’t always appreciated.
Illustration by Jullian Ablaza used under a Creative Commons license.

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