Quartz, which launched in 2012, has a smaller staff and takes a different approach. It employs journalists in New York, London, Hong Kong, and Bangkok who are “trying to write pieces that are intelligible to everyone around the world,” says global news editor Gideon Lichfield. “One of our style points is that people shouldn’t write in a way that’s too America-centric.” Editors and writers workshop headlines together in a group chat, where they chime in if a reference or phrase seems too culturally specific. Still, this doesn’t mean every article has to appeal to every reader. “Most people who read things on Quartz are seeing them through some social stream, which means they’re not seeing the whole of Quartz,” Lichfield says. “The articles they see are likely to be the ones they’re interested in. Which is why we say not everything has to be of interest to everyone.”
Of course, Zimmerman cautions, for socially optimized content to go viral, there must be a platform where users can share it. Facebook and Twitter are global, but vary in access and popularity. Russians have VKontakte, a popular social network similar to Facebook. In Brazil, BuzzFeed’s US-based editors were curious if the Google-owned social networking site Orkut was still a major destination—turns out that it’s got a reputation akin to MySpace in the States. Reddit is surprisingly popular in Spain and throughout the Spanish-speaking world, Zimmerman says. Users of each of these platforms have their own quirks and preferences, many of which can be broken down culturally. Lamb says the “cute fuzzy cat buzz” doesn’t do very well in France. Americans love a positive story with a happy ending. The British prefer their humor with a bit more bite and satire.
But while the tone may differ from culture to culture, “I think human beings are the same everywhere, and the stuff you want to share is the same kind of stuff,” says Heather Timmons, who joined Quartz as an Asia correspondent after seven years in India, where she wrote for The New York Times. Even though Quartz publishes only in English, it has seen some of its graphic-heavy stories widely shared on Sina Weibo, the Chinese micro-blogging social platform where users discuss universal topics like weight loss and Hollywood gossip, as well as more specific issues like child labor. “We’re writing stuff that’s news to a Hong Kong audience but also tells you something broader about the world. That’s the ideal situation.”
In the past, even when US publications concerned themselves with news beyond our borders, most were still publishing with American readers in mind. That’s clearly not the case anymore. Digital publishing has erased the previously prohibitive costs of reaching news consumers in a variety of time zones. It’s also allowed for homegrown competition to proliferate. If BuzzFeed, for example, ever decides it wants to lure more Indian readers, it’ll have to compete with Scoop Whoop, a site that aims to “curate and create stories that are relevant to India.” These days, gaining international readers means hiring journalists who understand what those readers want. And even if those journalists are employed by US-based publications, odds are most of them are not going to be American.
This is a good thing. Even if US-based outlets successfully spread by perfecting virality in dozens of international media markets, they’ll be successful because they aren’t simply projecting an American worldview. “The traditional US bureau structure was ‘send the white guy out to the hinterland and have him send back letters explaining this crazy place to the people at home,’” Timmons says. “No one’s doing that anymore.”