Why Quartz launched a newsletter that dives into obscure trivia

Would you read a 1,300-word newsletter about garden sheds? What about a 1,400-word piece on lettuce? A little over a year ago, the business-focused publication Quartz made a bet that you would, launching a daily newsletter called Quartz Obsession. The aim of the product? Take the most mundane topics imaginable and — through narration, numbers, and quotes — prove to the reader that these topics are not mundane at all.

Unlike many newsletters that simply round up links to articles on the publication’s site, Quartz Obsession is a standalone newsletter that can be completely consumed within the inbox. It’s seen open rates as high as 80 percent, and thousands of readers have written in to suggest topics for it to cover.

Why did Quartz launch a product that steered clear of the editorial topics it usually covers on its website? And how does it pick each day’s topics? To answer these questions, I turned to Jessanne Collins, who edits the newsletter.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find a transcript of the interview.

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A transcript is below.

Simon Owens: Hey Jessanne, thanks for joining us.

Jessanne Collins: Thanks for having me.

You now work at Quartz, specifically heading up a newsletter project called Quartz Obsession. How did you end up with that job?

Well, I took kind of a roundabout path to working in the newsletter sphere. I began working in print magazines. I spent about 10 years in the magazine industry. Most recently, I was editor in chief of a magazine called Mental Floss, which is a quirky knowledge and trivia-based general interest magazine. It’s similar to the Quartz Obsession in its DNA.

Mental Floss goes deep on topics that aren’t tied to the news cycle, if I remember correctly.

Exactly. Not at all tied to the news cycle. More about the exploration of interesting topics and interesting rabbit holes. I spent six years there prior to joining Quartz. The magazine no longer exists. The website still exists, but the magazine folded in 2016. And eventually, at that point, I was looking around for opportunities, and what I was specifically interested in doing with this background in print magazines, where my speciality was really packaging and non-linear storytelling, coming at stories in a way that combined narrative and graphics, I was looking for a role that was product specific. I wanted to work on a digital product that had storytelling at its core but was also about connecting directly with an audience.

That was something, coming from the print world, that was very key. My background was as an editor, and the reason people still subscribe to magazines is they feel a really strong connection with the product. When I started exploring the variety of ways products were manifesting online, I stumbled onto the Quartz rabbit hole. Quartz has been a leader in developing all sorts of interesting, different news space products.

So they were looking for an editor to head up this newsletter Obsession. There was a concept of it, that it would be a daily deep dive into a single topic, that it would come at the news at a scant angle, and use a multimedia format. And I was like hey, that’s me. So I joined Quartz about six months before the product launched. I had that time to iterate on what it was going to look like and how it was going to work, and what elements were going to be the core part of it. And I also worked, at that time, on our other products like the Quartz Daily Brief, which is a flagship daily newsletter, and the Quartz app.

They knew a basic concept, but it was up to you to shape the structure of what this thing was going to look like.

Yeah, the concept came from a product designer at Quartz who had this idea that, at Quartz, which is a broad multi-interest organization with journalists working on all kinds of interesting theories of inquiry, there was this interesting backchannel, Slack situation where people would kind of go down these interesting rabbit holes. One of his thoughts with this product is that we need a way to turn that spirit of inquiry outwards to our public, and take them along with us on this research journey.

So he came up with the idea to do this email around a single topic, and to have it told in this multimedia, card-based way, so the product architecture is built around a series of cards, with each one doing a different thing. Then, from there, it was kind of up to me and my team to iterate around what we’d have each card do and how it would tell a coherent story that was navigable but also eclectic enough to keep people’s interest all the way through. It took a fair bit of experimenting to find the right elements and the right lengths.

I remember when Quartz first launched, they had this messaging that their reporters didn’t cover beats, they covered obsessions. Did this end up being why they called it Quartz Obsession?

Yeah. The idea of obsession is very much a Quartz concept. The way we think about the topics we cover is that they’re evolving obsessions. If a standard beat is the tech industry, Quartz is looking at things from a more interdisciplinary approach — at the way things are changing over time. An example of an obsession is the future of food. It’s a more focused, multi-disciplinary approach.

So when we were launching the Obsession email, it was a way to double down on that concept as an organizing principle. It was also a way to experiment with how obsession could play out in a micro level. I think about the Obsession email to be almost like the fine-detailed iteration of what an obsession would be.

There are two different types of newsletters. Those that are basically summaries of content that you can find on the news site, that you click away from the newsletter to read the articles. And there are newsletters that are self-contained. They don’t require you to click out of them. The content is contained within the newsletter itself. Why did they decide to make this a newsletter product and not just a regular feature on the website?

Quartz feels very strongly that you create the products for the platform you’re serving to. It’s designed to be something that’s consumable right in the inbox. I like to think of it as a little bit of a choose your own adventure style. Meaning the email is set up so you can read it from start to finish without leaving your inbox. You get something out of it. You can click on all the links and leave your inbox, and get much deeper into this topic. Or you can actually just — anecdotally I hear from people that they like that you can just skim around, and pick and choose which aspects of it you’re interested in reading. So you can go a little bit lighter. And I think that’s one of the reasons people have really responded to it and connected to it. At its core, we wanted to experiment with what we’d do within the boundaries of the inbox, and really push the bar on that a little bit, because we’re big believers in just delivering content to people where they already are. And we know that, despite being an antique technology at this point, email hasn’t gone anywhere, and people are as reliant on it as ever.

It was definitely core to the concept that it would be an email newsletter. In some ways, the limitations, like any creative team will tell you, the limitations on a project is kind of the fun part. Email as a platform is frustrating because it’s quite limited in what you can do. It’s also changing all the time. Every time Gmail updates its system, things start to break. So it needs constant maintenance from a product perspective. But that said, our team was really inspired by the idea of working in this known space and creating something that people really hadn’t seen there before.

And all that said, now that we’ve been doing the Obsession for a year, and it’s established itself as an editorial product, I think we don’t see the limit to it as being email. It is an email right now, but we’re starting to think about it as something that has legs that can extend into other mediums and other dimensions. We’re in the beginning stage of thinking about what those might be and how it can translate into other mediums.

You used the word multimedia. Is it just a newsletter at this point or are you making other tangential media around it?

It is just a newsletter at this point. We’ve made a whole bunch of tangential products out of it in our minds and in our brainstorming sessions. We have big ideas about different ways it can go. At this point it is just a newsletter. It does live on the site as well. We’re working on ways to make that more discoverable and more navigable. One of the things about the email is that it’s got light news pegs, but a lot of what we’re covering is quite evergreen. So knowing we’ve amassed this quantity of things that are not going away anytime soon, we’re really thinking hard and starting to experiment with what we would do with those archives.

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What are the day to day operations for the newsletter? How do you choose the topics? What kind of reporting resources do you have at your disposal? Can anyone at Quartz contribute to it if there’s something they’re interested in? Give us examples of different issues. You’ll pick topics. Sometimes it’s a completely mundane topic, the kind of topic where someone would be like, well why would I want to hear about that? And then you go really deep on it and explain why it’s interesting, pull up all kinds of trivia about it. Tell me about how you pick these topics, how you will build an issue from start to finish.

One of the fears that we had when we started this was that we’d run out of topics working on this every single day. We were like, can there really be that many topics in the world? And as it turns out very quickly, it turns out we have the opposite problem. It’s like once you start looking at the world and the news with this lense on about where the quirky stories live in small places that you might otherwise overlook, we realized they’re everywhere.

95 percent of the time, the topics we’re assigning are coming from under the watchful eyes of myself and other team members. They ping their ideas into the Slack channel, and they’re just overflowing. The trick is finding the right level of specificity. One of the things we’ve toyed with was finding where that level is. People say it’s almost like a long read, but isn’t a long read because it’s told in this piecemeal way.

You break it into segments. You’ll have statistics, a whole series of numbers thrown in. You’ll have pull quotes. It’s not like they’re just reading one long article.

Yeah, we’ll use numbers. We’ll use timelines to tell a little history. A quote. Charts. Quiz, which contains actual information. They have a sense of being quite sprawling. But they’re actually in the 1,500-word range. It’s not a small amount of content, but it’s also not huge. The trick is in finding the thing you can do justice to in that amount of space, in a really thorough way. Or an angle to a story that you’re telling about a much bigger thing, where you can follow the narrative thread through. We’re not trying to literally be another Wikipedia and tell you everything about this topic. We’re telling you what’s interesting and important about it, and why it matters. It’s a pretty curated experience.

I guess a good example of something we did recently that I really loved was the topic of sheds, like garden sheds. It sounds like the most inane thing. What could possibly be interesting about the little place where you keep the garden tools? But there was actually this really interesting narrative where in Australia, sheds were becoming this gathering place for this class of retired men who otherwise were suffering from depression and loneliness. They found this place of meaning and community gathering in their backyard sheds. We looked at how this humble piece of architecture was playing out in this modern cultural problem.

Finding the unexpected angles is something that’s really important and key to the storytelling we’re doing. Also, finding the unexpected details and the interesting little tidbits that you really have to dig for sometimes. I always want people to feel surprised about what they’re reading. As long as we can compel people to open an email with a subject line like ‘sheds,’ my promise is it’s going to be more interesting than you thought it would be, and I think that’s what people really responded to.

How do you promote the newsletter? What do you see leads to the most signups? Is it people forwarding it to other people? Are they mainly coming in through the web version? Obviously newsletters don’t go viral, because they’re designed not to since they’re sitting in inboxes. How do you grow a newsletter like this?

It really has been an organic process. We really haven’t invested a ton of time or money at all into growing it on purpose. We obviously share it on our site and cross-promote with our other products. But really what’s driven the reach of it is been people sharing it with other people. And we do have data on that, which individual ones get shared the most. We can gauge the success of certain topics.

Just anecdotally, it’s the kind of thing that people discover and then feel like they’ve discovered something really unique and special. And they feel like they want to evangelize for it. So that’s done for us very well, to have a product that people love and want to share.

Even though most of them aren’t tied to the news cycle — some of them are, like you had one on Aretha Franklin when she passed away — do those newsletters have a higher open rates when they’re tied to the news cycle?

That’s a question we’re always trying different ways to ask ourselves. What’s the right level of newsyness? And the right level of being irreverent and outside the news? Because people are a little bit tired of news topics. I don’t think we have a magic formula for it. The topics are pretty hard to predict, analytically, what will be a hit or not. This isn’t scientific, but it’s easier to know that a thing is the thing of the day, and feels like the zeitgeist. It’s kind of an editorial instinct more than a quantitative recipe. But yeah, the Mr. Rogers issue did amazing. Aretha Franklin did really well.

Another one that did really amazingly, recently, was olive oil, which there was a news story about. It was kind of ambiently in the news, but there wasn’t a day where the olive oil story blew up. So it can be quite hard to predict performance other than just a gut instinct that this is something that people would want to read about today.

There are other publications like yours that try to pick a boring topic and then surprise readers by showing them it’s actually interesting. There’s a newsletter called Tedium that does this. There was a Gimlet show called Surprisingly Awesome. I’d imagine that the web versions of the newsletters are like super detailed Wikipedia articles in some ways. I’m sure there’s a Wikipedia article on sheds, but it’s not going to have all the information you share. I imagine the web versions of your newsletter do really well with search engines. Have you found that to be the case?

They should be. I think there’s a real potential for them to be great longterm traffic drivers. We’re covering this Wikipedia’s worth of topics.

What kind of actions are you trying to get from people? What kind of prompts do you have? Obviously you want people to sign up. What other things are you doing to engage your community?

We love to think about our community and try to experiment with it a lot. One thing we’ve been doing from the beginning is letting people reply directly to the email and asking them to. Giving them a lot of prompts and posing queries that will prompt them to reply. We get them in an inbox and I look at it. We ask people what should we cover and people write in with great ideas, as if we didn’t already have an overflowing Slack channel ourselves. The readers could write the editorial calendar for the year because they have so many great suggestions.

One thing we’ve done recently, because I feel like it’s this amazing gift to have this inbox of friendly emails and accolades and ideas for myself — one thing we’ve been experimenting with lately is we’ve created a subreddit with the idea that if we can encourage some of that same level of interaction in a public forum, we could grow this community into one that was enabling these Obsession readers to connect with each other and explore these topic areas they’re interested in the community setting.

It’s been a slow burn, to be honest, and I don’t feel that we’ve had the bandwidth to give it the editorial push that it probably needs to take off. But we have a couple hundred users on there. We’re not trying to break into the general Reddit scene, there’s certainly subreddits that do this type of thing much better. What we wanted to do is create this very specific place where if you’re an Obsession reader, and you want to talk about sheds today, come to this thread on this subreddit. That’s one way we’ve begun to toy with connecting the readers into a community.

A lot of publications are focusing on Facebook Groups now. Vox has some good newsletters, they have a good healthcare newsletter. They have a Facebook community and it’s a self-sustained community of people who are interested in healthcare policy. I know Reddit is trying to court publications. The Washington Post has its own subreddit and they’re actually monitoring that community. Do you find it has enough volume to where it’s worth your time?

I feel like we haven’t given it enough of a shot, to be honest. The volume isn’t there, but I also feel like it’s a two-way street. I haven’t given it enough time. It’s something I want to experiment and dive into more.

I know you don’t work on the business side, you’re on the editorial side. Can you talk a little bit about how it’s monetized?

There are sponsorship opportunities for it. Basically there are ads in the email. They are designed in the graphic card style we use throughout the email. Not intrusive. You’ll see this email is sponsored by so-and-so, just like any editorial real estate. It’s an option for when the sales team is selling sponsorships.

So it doesn’t weave with the editorial at all?

No it doesn’t weave with the editorial. There’s care taken that the sponsor should make sense with the subject area, so we have certain topics that are in science or tech or business, so a sponsor would slot into a space that would make sense for it to appear. But there’s no weaving editorial around who the sponsor is.

It seems like a lot of publications are getting into the newsletter space. I was just thinking the other day that I really need to cull through the newsletters I’m getting every day, because it’s taking up too much of my morning. Especially now that Facebook is backing away from news, a lot of these publications are looking to really diversify their traffic and branch out on more platforms. And they’re seeing email as one of the last great platforms that aren’t affected by algorithms, that are somewhat platform agnostic. Do you think the inbox is getting to be a more competitive space to be in? I don’t know if you’ve seen any fluctuations in how hard it is to get new signups, or in open rates. The thing we always heard about newsletters is that their engagement is so much higher than Twitter or Facebook. What are your thoughts on this as more and more publications get into this space?

I feel a little bit fortunate in this regard because I think Obsession is doing something pretty unique, and our offering is pretty clear. Hopefully nobody launches a competitor and does it eight times better. Definitely I can see from a bandwidth perspective that there’s certainly more inventory on the table than there was awhile ago. I tend to think there will be a culling of the newsletters. If organizations are launching newsletters thinking oh, this is something we can just do on the side, everybody’s doing it, so let’s throw a bunch of links in an email and send it out. Certainly the landscape is much more competitive. But I do think the ones that are invested in and connecting in the right way with the right audiences — I’m not worried about the longevity of them. I think an email has proved to be so oddly enduring for exactly that reason. It’s the space on the internet you can control and really curate as much as you want. As long as you’re doing something that people want to have in their worlds, I feel OK about the prospects there.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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