Tortoise Media explains its embrace of “slow journalism” and membership model

By Shelley Seale

INMA

Austin, TX, United States

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Tortoise is a new media concept, built for and with its members, and embracing the idea of “slow news.”

For the Tortoise Media team of journalists and newspaper professionals, staying true to this promise means leaving behind tried-and-tested ways of thinking and working inside editorial, marketing, and commercial.

Almost a year into the journey, the industry has good reason to be optimistic about the model. In an exclusive INMA Webinar on Wednesday, editor and partner Matthew d’Ancona led members through that journey, highlighting why the Tortoise business is a completely new take on traditional news media models.

Tortoise Media operates on a model of slow news and open journalism that digs deep into stories.
Tortoise Media operates on a model of slow news and open journalism that digs deep into stories.

Slow journalism

Tortoise Media is about doing journalism in a new way, which d’Ancona called “slow journalism.”

He shared that 34% of the company’s membership is under 30 years old. “This we think reflects something very important going on to which we hope Tortoise is responding,” d’Ancona said. “There’s a very definite generation gap, and they have a different set of concerns.”

This audience is interested in identity, politics, black lives matter, nutrition, fitness, and health, and they have a strong sense of themselves.

“They have a strong sense of being a new generation,” d’Ancona said. “We at Tortoise have become increasingly aware that serving them with quality content is essential to our future.”

The “slow news” concept is built on five pillars

  • Wealth: Fairness, investment, prosperity.
  • Belonging: Society, identity, belief.
  • Our planet: Geopolitics, environment, natural resources.
  • 100-year life: Health, public policy, education.
  • New things: Technology, engineering, science.

ThinkIn

Members drive the Tortoise business model and in fact are highly involved in the entire process. Tortoise developed what it calls “ThinkIns,” which bring members and guests into the newsroom for sort of focus-group sessions five times a week.

The business model of Tortoise is all about being membership-based.
The business model of Tortoise is all about being membership-based.

“We invite people to chip in; we really want to hear what they have to say. When they arrive we give them notes, the ThinkIn lasts about an hour, and then we feed in what they’ve told us into our journalism,” d’Ancona explained.

“They give us a way of understanding what’s going on around us. It’s not an intellectual strait jacket, we think beyond it when necessary.” But it enables the Tortoise newsroom to not be called away by each twist and turn in the news industry.

Tortoise ThinkIns bring member readers into the newsroom to shape the stories.
Tortoise ThinkIns bring member readers into the newsroom to shape the stories.

A ThinkIn is a live event in which Tortoise harnesses the diverse experiences and expertise of participants in the room, along with its journalists and outside experts, to explore the major issues shaping our world. This gives everyone a seat at the table and allows them to be part of the conversation. These live and raw conversations enable the Tortoise team to deliver unique and high-quality digital outputs in the form of shareable social content including photos, videos, and infographics.

“I think the reason it works is because people love to be invited to tell what they think and share their stories,” d’Ancona said. “And there are very few places live, in person, where people can do that.”

One example is a series done by Polly Curtis on “State vs. Family,” which explored the issues of why more children are in state care than ever before. When Curtis went to the ThinkIn events around the issue, many people came to her with their own personal stories.

State vs. Family is a journalism series that came as a result of a ThinkIn.
State vs. Family is a journalism series that came as a result of a ThinkIn.

“I don’t think anything has ever been done like it before,” d’Ancona said. “It’s a human and policy-driven story that we took our time with and has really affected people.”

Focus on beautiful design

Tortoise also sets a very high premium on design. “We started on the principle that everything we fed into the apps of our members should be the highest quality aesthetically,” d’Ancona said. “We want nothing to appear in the app that is remotely substandard. Obviously the content is key, but we observe the aesthetics is as much our identity.”

The principle at Tortoise is to keep the concept live and define it and to take their time with the stories. “We constantly send our members questionnaires and they’re very responsive.  Membership is the essence of what we do, not subscriptions or advertising.”

So far this year, it’s been a very encouraging experience with good results. “Having an election year in our first year has allowed us to see how a slow news organisation can do something in a fast-paced news environment.”

So far, the Tortoise Media model has been working and has received many accolades.
So far, the Tortoise Media model has been working and has received many accolades.

Q&A

INMA: How did Tortoise Media come about?

d'Ancona: Like all great origin stories, it’s been embellished with the passing of the months. There were initial conversations [between the founders], but what really made them think it could work was a series of conversations at James’ house (co-founder and editor James Harding), where they asked questions and worked out key aspects. They didn’t want it to be dependent upon advertising but wanted to break even rather quickly.

Three of the founders were looking very carefully at what was going on in the marketplace and trying to develop a unique model. The slow news idea, I think, was simply a way of marking out Tortoise from the get-go from all the other news media organisations that sort of add to the noise. Tortoise makes no claim to be covering every single news story every day. Our claim is that we dig deep.

INMA: Was The Guardian’s long read an inspiration?

d'Ancona: No; it’s important not to confuse slow with long. Slow news doesn’t mean it’s a 5,000-word piece, it simply means we will apply a longer and more thorough process [to developing the story].

INMA: What are the contemporary burning topics you cover in the ThinkIns?

d'Ancona: On the Tortoise site there is a look into all our past ThinkIns. The obvious subjects tend to be political, but we don’t do policy all the time. For example, we had a ThinkIn on Monday with Richard Dawkins talking about atheism. The ThinkIn environment is very different from the normal environment; this was Richard talking about his latest book, and then people chipping in with their ideas about religion. It’s not a Q&A; it’s people sharing their own thoughts and stories.

We’ve done ThinkIns about gender, and one of the most powerful and sensitive issues we’ve ever addressed was on miscarriage. You had women and midwives and doctors talking about their experiences, and you suddenly realise that there’s a whole area of discussion that’s very rarely aired. When we step outside what we call the “normal” policy realm, we often end up with the most incredible experiences.

INMA: Tell us about your recruitment process for the team.

d’Ancona: Partly it’s when you’ve got as deep a hinterland as James, you pretty much know anyone in the industry who have gotten to a certain level. His reputation is so high that between him and Katie (Vanneck-Smith, co-founder and publisher), they have been able to convince many people to come on board. This tremendous buy-in to the concept is also a major part of it. We’ve all arrived at a certain point in our careers where perhaps it was time for a reset. That level of talent is absolutely vital. And not only writing — they are very instrumental with the decision-making process.

INMA: How do you target that large under-30 audience?

d’Ancona: I think the important thing is not to make the mistake, which television did in the ‘80s, is to have a “young” approach. It must be thoughtful and serious. My sense in talking to the people who come to ThinkIns and connect to us in that age category is that they’re looking for a navigation map in the new world. The 21st century is full of major challenges such as climate change, which is a key issue for that generation, but also AI, longevity, gender issues, identity politics are all really becoming front and center. I think addressing those priorities is part of it, but I think we should be doing it anyway as a contemporary newsroom.

INMA: How many people attend a ThinkIn?

d’Ancona: We had 130 for the Richard Dawkins one, but it can vary between the sessions.

INMA: Is the financing purely through the members?

d'Ancona: We have a small part of financing in addition to our basic investment. Membership revenue is hugely important, and we also have partnerships with a number of companies. We’re looking into publishing ventures and event ventures, and are always looking for a multiplicity of revenue streams. Fortunately, we’re not dependent on advertising, so we’re less vulnerable to whatever comes next from that respect at least.

INMA: What’s the conversation if a major global news story happens?

d’Ancona: The biggest question for slow news media is what do we do if a 9/11 or something comparable happens? We have a daily element called the sense-maker, which is sort of our contribution to the daily news. It’s an expandable form because it can become almost anything and can expand if something huge happens. We did some fairly immediate response to the Notre Dame fire, for instance.

About Shelley Seale

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