Conference Wrap-Up: Building an Obsessions Newsroom


NEW YORK – Newborn digital news organizations have said goodbye to beats, assuming that global coverage of the news does not fit the Web as well as specialized journalism.

The concept of “obsessions journalism” is most extensively practiced by Quartz, the business news venture started in 2012 by Atlantic Media (it also coined the term). Gideon Lichfield, Quartz’s global news editor, together with Kristin Nolan (News Deeply) and Nick Whitaker (Google), discussed this topic in our first panel. How and why do you produce obsessions journalism? Listen to what the audience wants, Lichfield answered.

It is a fine balance to inform the casual reader with enough background without “boring” the more informed audience, he added. For Quartz, an obsession can also be a trend: It covered the Boston Marathon bombings the same way it covers ongoing obsessions, such as digital money.

Nolan said obsessions must have a broad approach to grasp the attention of the audience: “They need to have global reach and impact.” A small but core audience can be more valuable for news organizations than a larger, less informed one. This was the biggest takeaway from the panel.

Once you have found the obsession(s) your newsroom will cover, you need to think how you will package it. Our second panel, composed of Kenton Powell (Guardian U.S.), Suman Deb Roy (Betaworks) and Max Zimbert (Yahoo News Digest), addressed this topic. Powell pointed out how online journalism is known for readers’ short attention spans. In other words, even if your reader is obsessed, you need to catch, and keep, his or her attention. Interactives are a tool for that, he said.

Despite digital readers’ scattered attention, online platforms have the means to reach a much wider audience and therefore are better positioned than other media formats to create obsessions newsrooms. Push notifications on your phones and apps—like Summly (acquired by Yahoo and rereleased as Yahoo News Digest) and Instapaper, a Betaworks company—digest the news and help target an audience.

Most of the questions the audience had were about the business model for an obsessions newsroom, and this is what our third panel was about. Zach Seward (Quartz), Guy Vidra (Yahoo News) and Paul Berry (RebelMouse) offered suggestions on how to power an obsessions newsroom. The more an obsession is authentic, the easier it is to sell it to a brand, Vidra said. Quartz, meanwhile, has found that obsessions are easier to sell to brands because of the built-in target audience.

Furthermore, Quartz’s so-far successful business model relies on advertising and sponsored content, which is related to the publication’s obsessions. Produce good content and long-form pieces and focus on what you know how to master; then, hopefully, an obsessions newsroom will be viable, our three panelists concluded.

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