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President and publisher of Quartz, Jay Lauf, at Quartz offices in New York City. Quartz’s readers are 70 per cent business executives with a median age of around 40, most of whom earn more than $100,000 a year. It is a desirable niche that attracts lucrative ads from blue-chip companies such as Boeing Co. or Chevron Corp. (Michael Falco)
President and publisher of Quartz, Jay Lauf, at Quartz offices in New York City. Quartz’s readers are 70 per cent business executives with a median age of around 40, most of whom earn more than $100,000 a year. It is a desirable niche that attracts lucrative ads from blue-chip companies such as Boeing Co. or Chevron Corp. (Michael Falco)

Why your phone is suddenly full of explainer journalism Add to ...

Here are six reasons, give or take, why your phone is suddenly full of explainer journalism.

A crush of digital news startups led by big-name journalists have sprouted over the last two years, including Vox.com, Quartz, The Intercept, and FiveThirtyEight.com.

Some style themselves on short, digestible data- driven stories that promise context and clarity amid a barrage of online information. Others have a more investigative stance.

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What they have in common is they are built for mobile, social media-savvy audiences whose reading and viewing habits have changed dramatically from the dominant days of print and broadcast news.

They are a collection of experiments based on very different bets, driven by a swell of optimism about the future of online news. And they have established media players scrambling to adapt.

“[Digital news is] a different medium, and it has different values and different voices,” said Jim Bankoff, CEO of Vox Media, which owns seven websites including Vox.com and SB Nation. “… We focus on people who grew up creating things on the Web.”

By the time BuzzFeed, best known for “listicles” and cat videos, surpassed the New York Times in monthly web traffic last year, the storied newspaper was already hunting for ways to respond. A leaked internal Times report on digital innovation noted that, “Today, a pack of news startups are hoping to ‘disrupt’ our industry,” then wondered, “Should we be defending our position, or disrupting ourselves?”

The Times responded by creating The Upshot, a data-focused site led by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Leonhardt. But media giants feel besieged with good reason. Startups have relentlessly poached top talent: Vox.com lured Ezra Klein and his 500,000 Twitter followers from the Washington Post, and Glenn Greenwald left the Guardian, taking his trove of surveillance secrets to start The Intercept.

Personalities like Mr. Greenwald bring instant recognition, voice, and readers. Vox Media’s seven sites together attract an eye-popping 90-million unique monthly visitors, according to Mr. Bankoff.

Canada has not seen the same explosion of digital news ventures. But a group of younger journalists will soon launch Ricochet, a crowdfunded news site that has raised more than $80,000.

The entrepreneurial interest in new models for online news is spurred partly by the sharp drop in the cost of the technology needed to reach a mass audience. “As we know, this is the new printing press,” said Ken Doctor, a media analyst at Newsonomics.

Digital startups are also seizing on what Mr. Doctor calls the “mobile majority revolution,” as media organizations find close to half of digital readers now reach them on mobile devices. That has spurred a rash of list-based stories – variations of “Nine things you need to know about …” – but also taught digital reporters to keep stories short and include more visuals.

At Quartz, a business news site created by Atlantic Media in 2012, the strategy includes “trying to forgo two or three paragraphs of sort of throat-clearing prose where maybe an infographic would do,” said president and publisher Jay Lauf.

His site has more than five million unique monthly users, 40 per cent outside the U.S. and most of them on mobile devices – and loyalty from those readers is key.

“I think we’re moving away from a lot of the commoditized garbage that popped up in the search-driven Web where everyone was trying to game the Google robots,” Mr. Lauf said.

Underpinning all the talk of a new kind of digital journalism, however, are radically different plans to pay for it.

Quartz’s readers are 70 per cent business executives with a median age of around 40, most of whom earn more than $100,000 a year. It is a desirable niche that attracts lucrative ads from Quartz’s 60-plus marketing partners, most of which are blue-chip companies such as Boeing Co. or Chevron Corp. “We’re not profitable yet,” Mr. Lauf said, but “nor were we designed to be.”

A source close to Vox confirmed it secured $40-million in venture capital funding last fall, but its path to sustainability is through serving advertisers. First Look Media, which owns The Intercept, is backed by $250-million from eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar, but considering a range of revenue sources.

Jessica Lessin, a former Wall Street Journal technology reporter, broke the mould by founding The Information on her own dime. Her site also targets an executive crowd and relies solely on subscription revenue, charging a pricey $39 monthly or $399 annually, and promising just a few high-quality stories a day.

“If you’re taking on big companies, you’d better do something simple and well,” she said.

For now, her site and Quartz are hiring fast enough that they are outgrowing their office space. But natural selection may eventually reveal which outlets have struck the right mix.

“News and media’s competing for attention with everything, and so there’s not enough room for things that don’t achieve a level of indispensability. I think, absolutely, many of these publications won’t make it,“ Ms. Lessin said.

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