Clearly, Quartz wants to help elites go optimize themselves

The Atlantic’s new business site enters a crowded field catering to the 0.1 percent

The Atlantic’s big new business-journalism project is off to an inauspicious start.

First there’s the name: Quartz, which is different, and that doesn’t mean worse, necessarily, but…whatever. It’s a name.

Here’s the press release explaining why the venture will be called Quartz instead of The Atlantic Business, Bizlantic, Blantic or, say, Topaz or Borax:

“We’re making great progress in our efforts to build a new kind of business news venture,” said Delaney. “We named it Quartz after the mineral that’s a key component of tectonic shifts. We see the present world of business undergoing a seminal shift — and Quartz will be there, providing the leaders of this new global economy with the information they need.”

Atlantic Media chose the Quartz name because it embodies the new brand’s essential character: global, disruptive, and digital. Quartz, the mineral, is found all over the world, and plays an important role in tectonic activity. Quartz, the word, is bookended by two of the rarest letters in the English language, Q and Z, an easy-to-remember contraction that will get readers to the site——fast.

It sounds a little like Tom Friedman elevator-pitching a site to James Murdoch, or maybe Klaus Schwab (and if you don’t know he’s Mr. Davos, chances are Quartz is not for you). Again, not necessarily a biggie. Marketing is usually icky, and this effort especially so, but good luck getting somebody to give you millions of dollars—much less millions for a journalism project—without it.

But it’s the “providing the leaders of this new global economy with the information they need” that’s really worth a second look.

I’m all for anybody throwing cash into journalism, of course. But it’s getting awfully crowded at the top, what with your Financial Times, Economist, Barron’s, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg, Reuters, Bloomberg Markets, How to Spend It, Forbes Life, WSJ., Bloomberg Pursuits, Robb Report, Worth, Chief Executive, CFO, Executive Travel, Multifamily Executive, Construction Executive, Diversity Executive, Maritime Executive, Trade Show Executive, Hispanic Executive, and of course, Supply and Demand Chain Executive, all scrambling for scraps tossed by those global elites who have been doing such a fabulous job running things lately.

While Forbes is the self-proclaimed “Capitalist Tool,” Fortune is business journalism on Prozac, a comforting mirror for the 500 CEOs and a guide for climbers who hope someday to topple them. The FT has excellent finance news in addition to its yachting special sections, which provide helpful tips on the logistics of oceangoing chefs, which countersurveillance camera you should buy, and what you can pay ($128,000) for a Lasy Solar lounger that promises to “to take the effort out of sunbathing.”

The very rich and very powerful need journalism (and shopping guides) too, of course, but the truly great figure in business journalism in the last century was Barney Kilgore, who understood that by broadening and deepening The Wall Street Journal’s coverage, he could reach a mass audience while simultaneously being required reading for the relatively tiny business elite. Kilgore democratized business news by telling reporters that, for instance, “they should no longer write stories about banking with an audience of bankers in mind—better to aim for the almost infinitely more numerous bank depositors,” as Richard J. Tofel wrote in his Kilgore biography.

What did he know? He only increased the paper’s circulation 30-fold and turned a dreary stock sheet into a global powerhouse.

I thought at first that I was reading too much into Quartz’s “providing the leaders of this new global economy” line—that perhaps “leaders” is just marketing-speak for “readers.”

In case its raison d’etre (that’s me gettin’ all global) wasn’t clear, Quartz reiterates it (emphasis mine):

Quartz’s mission is to serve today’s new class of global business leaders — digitally-savvy, post-national executives who seek information that will help them better navigate the new global economy and optimize their businesses and their lives.

If there’s anything obscenely rich globalist types need, it’s more people serving them. But hey, that’s where the money is these days:

If there’s something to say for it so far, it’s that Quartz has some smart people on board: Zach Seward formerly of Nieman Journalism Lab and The Wall Street Journal, and Kevin Delaney, former WSJ reporter in Silicon Valley who later ran before taking over The Atlantic’s floundering business project.

And it’s good that Quartz is a New Thing, unencumbered by legacy print strictures and freer to take risks. The website looks sharp, certainly, and journalism needs all the experimentation it can get.

But it’s disheartening to say the least that to find a business model for business journalism, The Atlantic believes it has to follow the reportorial mob already serving the elite’s elite, the “new class of global business executives who have more in common with each other than they do with their countrymen” (emphasis mine) and who want help “optimizing their businesses and their lives.” I mean, isn’t that what McKinsey and personal trainers are for?

What the post-national elite who run the world really need to read is aggressive, forthright business coverage that pops their gilded bubble, shows them the external costs of their actions, and holds them to account when they betray the public trust, which seems to happen a lot these days.

Maybe Quartz will do some of that too, but there is zero indication in the press release of any such intention—or that the business universe might be somewhat off-kilter.

The proof will be in the pudding, obviously, but Quartz is already limited by its own conception of itself.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,