Quartz will have its fourth owner in 10 years with its sale to G/O media

Quartz, the digital business news site, announced Thursday that it has been sold to G/O Media, a holding company whose properties include Gizmodo, Gawker, Jezebel, The Root and The Onion.

This comes just two weeks after Quartz had said it was pivoting strategy, dropping a paywall and making most of its content free while retaining some premium paid membership products.

All of G/O’s family of sites are free, too. Quartz CEO Zach Seward told me by email, “We made the decision to drop our paywall before we even started talking to G/O, but of course they were aware and supportive of the move, which aligns with their strategy, too.”

Quartz will be a good fit in other ways. The G/O collection has lacked a general business title. The company will be able to consolidate some business functions and sell advertising to a big audience across brands.

Its sites, like Quartz’s, target a young and freewheeling audience. Quartz has as its motto “making business better” and is thus plugged into the current rise of social responsibility alongside profits and growth as goals for large and small firms.

From early on, Quartz has relied on sponsored content advertising, and Seward said in his email that the two companies have “very complementary ad businesses that we expect to benefit both.”

Seward, who has been with Quartz since its September 2012 launch, said in a memo to staff that he will be staying on as interim general manager and become editor-in-chief. Current editor-in-chief Katherine Bell will be leaving the company.

Seward and Bell have owned the company for two years, having bought it from Uzabase, a large publicly traded Japanese firm, which tried a paywall to sell subscriptions. Uzabase, in turn, had acquired Quartz from its original owner The Atlantic.

Seward wrote that the pair had sought other investors but decided G/O was the best choice to cover operating losses and fund expansion. He said that no layoffs were planned and that was one of the appeals of selling to G/O. Also, staff will split a $1 million bonus pool from the proceeds.

“Quartz goes forth from this deal unabated,” Seward wrote, “with as much ambition and purpose as before. Our newsroom will stay independent and focused on global business news and analysis. Our mission is still to make business better, including our own business.”

G/O has had a succession of owners itself.  The company was built out of the Gawker group, which was forced into bankruptcy in 2016 after a money-draining suit by former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan, backed by Silicon Valley financier Peter Thiel. The group was owned for a time by Univision, which spun it off into fund ownership by Great Hill Partners in 2019.

G/O and its CEO Jim Spanfeller have been a lightning rod for labor troubles the last few years. There have been mass resignations at three G/O sites — Deadspin, Jezebel and the Root. Unions at six of the sites have complained that Spanfeller failed to provide guarantees of editorial independence from advertisers. The unions went on strike briefly in March before a contract agreement was reached.

Quartz’s editorial staff is also unionized, represented by the NewsGuild of New York.

Deal terms were not disclosed, though The New York Times published a detailed piece, minutes after the announcement, on Quartz’s finances and how the negotiations came together.

While growing revenue and staff at a healthy pace in its early years, Quartz rarely made money and then suffered a sharp drop in advertising revenue during the pandemic.

The transaction fits a consolidation trend among nationally-focused digital startups. At the same time, the group’s appeal to general investors seems to be waning, as evidenced by BuzzFeed’s disappointing initial public offering in December, where shares quickly lost half their value.

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