For a brief moment during development, the first app from Quartz — the four-year-old business news publication owned by Atlantic Media — was going to be completely blank when you opened it up. "The whole thing was just notifications," Zach Seward, Quartz's executive editor and VP of product, tells The Verge. "The thought was that this would tell you, like, this is an app meant to be consumed entirely outside the square icon."
That is not what the Quartz app, which launches today on iOS, looks like in its final form. (An Android version is in the works.) But it's a glimpse into what Seward and the Quartz team thinks are the app's strengths: properly curating the news, making it consumable, and delivering it to you quickly.
"There are elements of that idea still in there, which is obviously the notifications, but also providing a Today widget, and a [Apple] Watch complication," Seward says. "There are ways to get value out of the app without even opening it, which we think is crucial."
News like you've never seen it
Instead of being blank, the version of the Quartz app being released today looks like an almost pixel-for-pixel replica of the iPhone's stock messaging app. Instead of reading the news, or browsing the news, or saving the news for later, you're having a conversation with the news. Sort of.
On the back end, the Quartz app employs the same team of editors who are in charge of the company's "Daily Brief" newsletter. It's up to team leader Adam Pasick to suss out the most important news of the day, both from Quartz and elsewhere. Those stories are then delivered to users as a series of messages, or for the most important ones, via push notifications. (In just a few days of testing, the app seemed about as fast as BuzzFeed's news app when it came to delivering breaking news notifications.) There are minimal settings, and when you run out of queued stories, the app will even give you a brief news quiz.
The short, in-app messages are crafted by Pasick and his team. When you open the app, you're presented with a chat interface. A message bubble filled with an ellipses appears — just like you'd see if someone was typing to you on iMessage. The first "text" you receive introduces a particular story, and from there you have a few ways you can interact.
Editors write the copy and curate the stories
The app populates one or two message bubbles of your own that you can "respond" to each story with. One is typically emoji related to the story, or a question; when I was prompted with a story about Twitter's poor quarterly earnings report, "how bad were they?" was one of the two canned responses at my disposal. Choose this option and you'll get another message from Quartz that details the story further. Sometimes, you'll even get images or GIFs.
The other canned response ("anything else?") lets you skip to whatever story is next in the queue. Any time during this back and forth you can tap any of the original messages coming from Quartz in order to open the full story in an in-app browser.
Seward describes it as "somewhere between a 'choose your own adventure' interface, and a chat with a friend, and a serious news briefing." That pretty much nails it. You're not going to power through all of the day's news in quick fashion with Quartz's app. You won't even be able to save or bookmark them, and sharing is limited to just the share sheet — there's no personal feed or recommendations section. But you'll get short bursts of most important stories with a bit of context and punch provided by editorial staff, all laced with GIFs, emoji, and sometimes even haikus.
Striking that balance isn't easy, though. "We want to be both informative and entertaining at the same time, and I think that’s very possible, but it sort of requires a constant weighing of the two," Seward says. "Right now I feel like we have a very strong tone and voice to the app and I feel good about where it’s at, but it hardly matters what I think."
The app is laced with emoji and GIFs
For me, it's a fun diversion, but it feels like it will only ever be a compliment to the other apps I use. Making it a roundup of all the news instead of just content from Quartz means it has a chance to appeal to more people. But if users can find the same content in multiple apps, they're bound to leave one (or more) eventually. What really matters will be how people react to the style with which Quartz's version of the news is presented. Quartz has bet the app's survival on its SMS-style interface (and an ad-based revenue stream; Mini is the launch partner, and the ads occasionally show up mid-conversation).
But that may not be as strange a wager as it initially seems. A recent Pew Research report showed that text messaging is the most popular smartphone feature. And as Verge Silicon Valley editor Casey Newton recently reported, text-based interaction is driving a wave of companies big and small to invest millions into developing bots that don't sound that far off from what the Quartz app is trying to do.
While the Quartz app is run by humans, the team was careful not to overly personify the editorial voice (though they did consider that path). "It’s not like you’re talking to some new character we’ve created who has his or her own emotions and personality," Seward says. "You have to have an environment where you can talk naturally about the most serious, awful news in one breath, and some silly form of entertainment in the next, because that’s what news is."
Correction: This article previously stated that Quartz is owned by The Atlantic. Both publications are owned by Atlantic Media. The article has been changed to reflect this.