Katherine Bell wants to build a better kind of business journalism
7 min read

Katherine Bell wants to build a better kind of business journalism

The Quartz editor-in-chief explains why the field needs to ‘break from its conservative past.'
Katherine Bell wants to build a better kind of business journalism

A song to read by: "Oxbow," by Waxahatchee

What I’m reading: "Real Life," by Brandon Taylor

Editor's note: I have switched back to Ghost for the time being. It's a long story.

Clear as Quartz

In recent months, Quartz has become one of my favorite publications to watch.

Founded in 2012, the publisher developed a reputation for its stylish design and creative site architecture, eschewing traditional verticals for categories like Obsessions and building out an elegant reading experience while the rest of the industry crammed unclosable ads into every spare pixel.

In 2018, a Japanese company called Uzabase acquired the publisher, and seemed to do little with it outside of making one prescient suggestion: launch a subscription product. Two years later, in November 2020, CEO Zach Seward surprised the media world by announcing that he had reached a deal with Uzabase to reacquire Quartz and take it private.

Helping him navigate the transition was Katherine Bell, the editor-in-chief of the publication, who took some undisclosed portion of equity in the management buyout, as did the rest of the Quartz staff.

Since then, free from Uzabase oversight, in a media environment that has historically smiled upon the niche, and with an expanding roster of talented journalists, Quartz appears poised for its third act. The company has dived back into its product-designing ways, a number of which I have covered for Adweek, and its nascent subscription program shows positive early signs.

Bell, who prior to Quartz served as the online editor and editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business Review and Barron’s, respectively, has presided over all of these pivots. During her time at the helm, she has helped build it into one of the most idiosyncratic business publications on the market. She has done this, notably, without sacrificing its rigor, reputation or thoroughness; the publication is no gimmick, but rather a business news organization with a personality.

In addition, she has upheld the Quartz tradition of casting a skeptical eye toward business as usual. The publication aims to “make business better,” which includes examining and critiquing the parts of it that work poorly. With Obsessions like Fixing Capitalism and the Future of Work, Quartz has shown that it is the rare business publication unafraid of reminding readers that the systems we have built are the product of choices, rather than some fixed, invisible way of life.

“For us,” Bell said, “everything is up for questioning, including capitalism.”

I spoke with Bell to ask her about the changing state of business journalism, which too often has served as handmaiden to the industry it purports to cover. If we want any kind of sustainable future, we need a new way of conducting business, and, by extension, a new way of covering that business.

The following has been edited for clarity.

The first article of yours I ever read made my jaw drop, because it said something I’d long thought but never heard anyone vocalize, which is: Why is business journalism so conservative? Why did you feel like that question needed asking?

I would start by saying that I do think it’s starting to change. I think business journalism is starting to change in response to businesses starting to change, taking issues seriously in a way that happens throughout the organization itself, rather than as a separate thing.

In fact, if you look at business coverage in general, especially during the pandemic and following the murder of George Floyd, issues of inclusivity have become workplace issues, and business news organizations have responded to that.

But there is still a lot of work to do, because these issues are still not fundamental assumptions that infuse every decision a business makes. That’s a really different thing, and it’s hard for businesses because there is a lot at risk.

Business journalism doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If you write a critical article about a company, they are far less likely to send you their next exclusive. How do you balance maintaining healthy relationships with sources, while still trying to hold companies accountable?

I totally agree with that assessment: You want the CEO to talk to you. The companies you’re covering are also occasionally your advertisers. And your readers: Some of them aspire to be in the position of the person you’re interviewing. If what readers want is information that helps them be better at their jobs, you can only ignore their interests for so long before you fail as a publisher.

But for Quartz, one of the reasons we worry less about access is that companies understand now that they need to address these issues differently, from a fundamental level. Part of that is pressure from workers, especially young workers, who expect their employers to live up to their values.

I should say, though, that we do more analysis than breaking news, so we have a little more distance from the people making the news.

Some of the language you use in your July 2020 article is, while not anti-capitalist, maybe what we could call capitalism-suspicious. How does Quartz think about capitalism as it covers the business world?

We are absolutely not anti-capitalist, but for us, everything is up for questioning, including capitalism.

There are many forms of capitalism, and there are many choices — made by companies, regulatory bodies, governments — whose sum makes up capitalism. A lot of them are not working and need to be changed: they don’t support innovation, they don’t support workers.

But at Quartz we look at the context of things to understand them, not make assumptions. We look at the past a lot, and we look globally, a lot, so we can see what worked in different places, at different times. What we see is that capitalism is not monolithic.

If something is broken, you can fix it, you can change the system. I personally believe that capitalism is a really good system for bringing people out of poverty, for improving people’s lives and for creating value and opportunity in the world.

But its edges need to be constantly adjusted and monitored, and its downsides need to be addressed.

I agree, with at least one key exception: That capitalism in all forms relies on consumption, and consumption is bad for the environment. How do you cover business from a sustainability perspective, when you know that the most sustainable thing to do is decrease consumption?

That is where it gets hard, and we have those conversations too rarely — perhaps, in part, because there is still so much room for businesses to improve before they even get to the parts that would cost them.

A great example is fast fashion, which is terrible for the environment. Some companies are trying to improve the working conditions of their employees, use less packaging, and find more sustainable fabrics, so they mitigate the harm. But the fundamental business model — convince people to buy more clothes than anybody possibly needs — is harder to address.

There is a certain point where some people are going to have to give up some power, and some people are going to have to give up some money. And that’s where people do not want to go.

I have a theory that some of the reader-trust issues plaguing the media world could be solved if publications stated very clearly their operating assumptions and beliefs. Has Quartz ever considered laying out its principles in such a way?

We have our mission written out, which is about helping companies solve problems rather than create new ones. It’s also about inequality, inclusivity and sustainability, among other things.

But yes, I think it would be helpful to have everything laid out very clearly. Every organization has fundamental assumptions that it’s making; it’s just a question of whether or not it is aware of that.

Okay, hypothetical time: You’re invited to give a lecture to a group of college journalists. What one thing would you want them to learn that they might not be taught in traditional journalism school?

To have a very broad sense of what a business story is.

I was absolutely not interested in business in my twenties: I thought it was about helping rich people get richer. In reality, it is a lens that you can apply to anything, and it’s a satisfying lens.

You can make a real difference too, which makes your job easier and more fun. Companies are powerful, so when you hold them accountable, you can precipitate meaningful change.

From a business journalism perspective, how could coverage of the media industry be better?

Journalism was one of the earliest industries to be severely disrupted by digital — the internet allows you to compete across distances, which changed everything. Even if I weren’t in the media, I think I would look at the media industry as a harbinger of what will happen to other knowledge-based industries.

More broadly, I wish there were more smart coverage of solutions. There is a lot of focus on mergers and acquisitions, but the industry is in trouble and needs more creativity.

In media, I have written about how we replace 1,000 journalists with 5 journalists and call it innovation. Do you ever feel like there is no winning in a broken system, only staving off the inevitable?

Part of the problem is that these are systemic issues that are really hard to solve. I wish I had a vision in my mind for how to solve the problem of making media make money, and my only challenge was getting people on board to solve it. No one knows how to solve it.

If the bigger question is: As an industry, should we be thinking of the larger forces that could be marshaled to make space for us to be more innovative and counter some of the downsides of technological change? Absolutely.

Some good readin’

— I came up with a really great title for this that I think went under-appreciated. (Adweek)

— I would be remiss if I did not mention that Quartz was actually offering a literal seminar on business journalism. That's called praxis, baby! (Quartz)

— I will be wearing shorts to the office, tastefully, this summer! (New York Times)