News Has Become Noise. Tortoise Wants to Change That.

The cofounders of Tortoise hail from Dow Jones and the BBC. Their mission: to help readers slow down and wise up.

The founders of Tortoise: James Harding, Katie Vanneck-Smith, and Matthew Barzun. Photo: Charlie Clift

“I think many of us feel overwhelmed by the variety of ways to get our news, and the velocity and the accelerated nature of the endless scroll and the alerts. It’s a cacophony of almost white noise,” says Katie Vanneck-Smith, former president and chief customer officer of Dow Jones and the cofounder of Tortoise, a new membership-based slow journalism enterprise.

Tortoise wants to keep people informed without overwhelming them. Its motto: “slow down, wise up.” And it’s resonating with readers. The Kickstarter campaign to support Tortoise’s public launch reached its funding goal in the first 24 hours, and went on to become the most-funded Journalism project in Kickstarter’s history.

The idea for Tortoise came to cofounder James Harding in 2016, when a truck driver plowed into pedestrians in the French city of Nice. Journalists at the BBC, where Harding was head of news at the time, were looking into the attacker’s background, investigating what had motivated the attack. But this in-depth reporting was soon supplanted by more breaking news: an attempted military coup in Turkey.

“The BBC creates four seconds of news for every second in the day,” says Vanneck-Smith. “The story of the man in the truck, of what drives people to do that, was not something that was afforded in the 24/7 breaking news cycle.”

Harding reached out to Vanneck-Smith — they had been colleagues at The Times of London — with an idea for a newsroom that would take the time to more deeply investigate the stories behind the headlines. “When he pitched it to me, I was like, ‘I get it. I want in because I want it for me,’” she says.

The Tortoise approach is threefold. It’s anchored in a daily news conference called a ThinkIn, in which the editorial team discusses what they’re going to cover. These ThinkIns are open to Tortoise members in person or via teleconferencing, and attendees are invited to share their perspectives on the stories and issues they’re discussing. The ThinkIns then inform the content of a once-daily news digest, which shares five to seven concise articles. “It isn’t going to be an endless scroll,” Vanneck-Smith says. “It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You will be able to feel like you have finished it.”

Tortoise also plans to publish a quarterly book of long reads — thoughtfully reported pieces that investigate “the driving forces behind the news,” Vanneck-Smith says. “There are some stories, some investigations, that deserve and need time, and those will get a platform in our quarterly short book of long reads.”

The idea is not just to help people feel less overwhelmed and more informed. It’s also about gaining perspective and finding a way forward when it comes to the big issues of our time. “For us, slow journalism is about providing a deeper understanding, with the ambition of being part of the conversation about making a better 21st century,” Vanneck-Smith says.

We want to talk about the news when it’s ready, and for us ‘when it’s ready’ means being part of moving the conversation forward, moving the conversation to a positive place so that we can drive action and solutions.

It’s also about creating a culture of transparency and trust — a crucial undertaking at a time when accusations of “fake news” are hurled with impunity from the highest seats of power. So much of journalism happens “behind closed doors,” she says. And that limits the perspectives of the people reporting the news. “We believe that the more voices that you hear and listen to in advance of coming up with a point of view, the more informed that point of view will be.”

Tortoise is gearing up for a public launch after the Kickstarter campaign ends. Their goal is to build a self-sustaining subscription model, and they’re committed to remaining independent and ad-free. “For us, it really matters that the people we are accountable to are our members,” Vanneck-Smith says.

For now, though, the only way to get a Tortoise membership is through the Kickstarter campaign, and the team plans to visit and host ThinkIns in any U.S. or UK city where they receive support from 100 backers or more. (So far New York City and London, where Tortoise is based, are leading the pack. San Francisco, DC, and Chicago in the U.S. and Sheffield, Leeds, Bristol, Edinburgh, and Belfast in the UK look promising.)

“Communities like Kickstarter are brilliant sources of passionate, participatory, and purposeful individuals who want to be part of something,” Vanneck-Smith says. “We can think of no better community to help us shape the product and give us feedback on what our newsroom should be and how our products live up to our ambition.”

Rebecca Hiscott


If you’d like to support Tortoise’s mission to slow down, wise up, and open up journalism, you can back the Kickstarter campaign through November 16.