What hope for slow journalism?
James Harding and the Founding Team of Tortoise Media discuss the opportunities and challenges of practicing slow journalism
Can slow journalism help attract readers back (and make them pay)? GEN spoke with James Harding and the Founding Team of Tortoise Media, a recently launched UK news startup that calls on its readers to ‘slow down, wise up’. The outlet was founded by the former director of BBC News James Harding, the former president of the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Katie Vanneck-Smith, the former ambassador of the US to Sweden and the UK Matthew Barzun and the founder of Nexus Management Ceci Kurzuma. We spoke about the mission of Tortoise as well as its attempt to engage its audiences off screen — through ThinkIns, live meetings, during which Tortoise members and guests can join a conversation on a particular topic that it is covering. We also discussed slow journalism more generally — the opportunities and challenges as well as potential risks.
GEN: What is at the heart of Tortoise Media’s mission?
James Harding and the Founding Team of Tortoise Media: Tortoise is a response to two problems. First, the daily noise. We are overwhelmed by information. The problem isn’t just fake news or junk news, because there’s a lot that’s good — it’s just that there’s so much of it, and so much of it is the same. In a hurry, partial and confusing. Too many newsrooms chasing the news, but missing the story. Second, the power gap. The divide between the powerful and the powerless is widening. We feel locked out. Alarmed by the lack of vision, hungry for leadership in business, technology and society. We think we’ll do better by slowing down and opening up.
Slow journalism really kicked off in the UK, particularly with the launch of Delayed Gratification magazine in 2011. Today, there are an increasing number of slow journalism outlets worldwide. One such example is De Correspondent, which was launched four years ago in the Netherlands as “an antidote to breaking news” — very similar to Tortoise. What is different about Tortoise?
The principles are similar, it’s true. It’s a good thing that it’s not just Tortoise working on developing a different type of journalism. With Tortoise, our members really are the engine of our journalism. When we say we’re practising open journalism it’s not just a symbolic term — our newsroom is, literally, open to members. They come to conference. They shape our stories in real time, face to face. And for those who aren’t in the capital, or even the UK, we go to them. “In person and personal” is the watchword. There is something very particular about having a conversation face to face that you just can’t get with digital interaction. One of our younger members put it brilliantly, “the future of journalism is talking in a room not shouting at a screen.”
Slow journalism is certainly different from the breaking news cycle, but in a way it is at the core of the profession — the ‘long read’, feature or even a good old investigative piece are all part of it. What is slow journalism for you? A new form of journalism altogether or the nostalgia for the pre-internet times?
We’re wary of thinking of it as nostalgic. It is less the presentation of the piece that’s different than the way of producing it. The dynamic between the reporter and the reported is different. ‘Old fashioned’ investigative journalistic skills are still very much in play at Tortoise, and none of us could do our jobs without the internet.
The ‘information overload’ might be real, but do you see a risk of further consolidating social bubbles through slow journalism? How do you see the balance between getting information from a diversity of sources vs relying on one or few sources only?
You have to make deliberate decisions to avoid the echo chamber. That’s why we launched through Kickstarter, so we could start from the beginning with a wider group of people. It’s why we incentivised under 30s, who traditional news brands have really struggled to recruit but who are critical to our success, with a lower price point. For our model to work, we have to convene rooms of people who are different — different from each other and from us. The Tortoise Network, which we launched in June, has been a game-changer — it is our funding initiative that makes Tortoise accessible to people who are hardest for news platforms to reach but whose voices we most need to hear. We have over 5,000 members through the network so far and their contribution is invaluable journalistically.
What are your thoughts on news personalisation? Many well-established news media are increasingly investing in it as an attempt to retain audiences and diminish the overload. Can personalised news effectively compete with slow journalism?
Personalisation is probably an effective tool when you’re producing a huge volume of content for a massive audience. Slow journalism is the other way up. With our members, we hand pick the stories we’ll cover. And it’s only those stories, so we don’t have to worry about limiting what people see based on their interests. If we’ve done our job well, they’ll be interested in most of what we do.
Tortoise is no longer covering current affairs, but focused on what you call the “five pillars”: technology, finance, natural resources, identity and longevity. Could you elaborate more on the last two?
We call our identity pillar ‘Belonging’. It’s actually the biggest of our Big Five forces in terms of stories. Recently, we held a whole day of ThinkIns about the new battle for civil rights which tried to get to grips with how the interplay of secular and religious rights, values and beliefs are changing the rules of engagement for ordinary life today. It’s also where our Arts coverage is. We call our treatment of longevity the ‘100 Year Life’. People living longer, we believe, is every bit as important as technology in changing the structure of society, the relationship between the state and the family, between worker and employer — just as much as more obvious things like health, public policy, education.
Who is your audience and where are the mostly from? Which storytelling formats are working most well? (Tortoise produces stories in different formats — from a daily app with five stories that include text and video to a print magazine.)
They are younger than you might expect — 35% under 30. They’re from all over the UK, not just London, and 20% overseas. We interviewed hundreds of members over the summer and were delighted to find there is no one ‘typical’ Tortoise member. As for formats, we’re experimenting all the time. January to March we published in beta, it was like a 12 week live focus group. Members are very vocal, borderline bracing, in their feedback — it’s incredibly helpful. They asked us to increase the amount of audio we do, for example, which is rolling out now. We’ve been encouraged by the read times — we were concerned that long reads wouldn’t work on mobile devices, but have found that’s not the case. Some members especially like the print edition of the Quarterly, others are superfans of our resident cartoonist Edith. But we’re still changing things as we go. That’s what’s so good about working with live events and in an app — it is possible to try new things without breaking everything.
Tortoise started out with an undisclosed sum of investment from private funders as well as over 500K GBP raised through kickstarter, but your long-term business model is based on membership. How well is your membership model working so far? Have you made any changes to your membership policies in the past year?
It’s worth remembering that the Kickstarter money was membership money. The pledges weren’t for equity, they were people buying membership early. We have just shy of 20,000 members — we launched formally in April. The big new initiative was the launch of the Tortoise Network in June, which brought (so far) an extra 5,000 members from under-represented groups through charitable organisations. We also launched student pricing in September, for which the first 5,000 are funded by a partner. Soon you will be able to subscribe to the Tortoise app through the app store and pay monthly, which is an important new channel that hasn’t been available before.
In an attempt to engage and get to know your audiences, Tortoise organises ThinkIns — live meetings, during which Tortoise members and guests can join a conversation on a particular topic that Tortoise is covering. How well are these ThinkIns attended? How diverse is the audience? Has it really made a difference in terms of increasing membership and creating a link with your audiences?
A ThinkIn, which is what we call the open editorial conferences, is a forum for civilised disagreement. Tortoise members are very diverse — politically, ethnically, religiously, socially. A ThinkIn really works when we get opposing points of view in a room, and we work hard to make sure that happens and to create an atmosphere where people feel free to speak up. The goal is to get to a better understanding, together. Understanding as both process and outcome. We don’t have to agree. We’re not seeking consensus. But we are looking for ways to make progress.
We’ll have 140 people in the newsroom this evening. We do anything up to 8 ThinkIns a week, and the size of the audience depends on the topic and the speaker. What we’ve learned is that once we get someone to attend a ThinkIn, that’s when the difference of Tortoise really hits home, so in terms of engaging people then yes, the ThinkIn experience is crucial. ThinkIns are open to non-members too for £25 a ticket.
You also planned to ‘take ThinkIn on the road, including to prisons, schools and clubs’ and also abroad when you have more than 100 members in a city.Have you already carried this out? If so, please share the experience.
Yes we’ve expanded our On the Road programme a lot this year, through the Network and other partners. We’ve done ThinkIns in the Bronx and in Lesvos, at the refugee camp there. We’ve been to a care home in Norwich, a secondary school that was particularly badly affected by knife crime. We’re still working on the prison. We’re half way through a tour of university towns across the UK — Belfast, Cardiff, Leeds…. The flavour of the conversation is different depending on the room.
What would be your response to Emily Bell’s article about Tortoise Media in which she wrote:“it feels like an escape from the structural problems of journalism rather than a solution”?
It’s very early days, but we think our editorial processes and business model are structurally different — so in that way, we’d say we are building a solution not an escape. We are a tiny journalism start up, and it is healthy to remember that we aren’t here to save the world, or even the industry. But we do have big ambitions and we have seen some encouraging early signs. We’re called Tortoise for a reason, we don’t expect anything to happen overnight. Maybe come back in five years and ask us again?