How Fast Can Tortoise Run?

Inside a digital media supergroup and their plan to reinvent journalism

The first came on June 23, when the U.K. stunned the world’s establishment by voting to leave the EU. Harding, then the director of news and current affairs at the BBC — and therefore in charge of one of the largest and best-resourced newsrooms in the world — had spent the campaign defending the BBC against accusations of bias from both sides of the political spectrum. As the media scrambled to make sense of the result, Harding was struck by how many reporters had gotten it wrong.

The second came on July 14, when a terrorist drove a truck into a Bastille Day crowd in Nice, France, killing 86. Harding ordered up stories on the suspect and intelligence failures behind the attack, but they never made the news. By then, an attempted coup was underway in Turkey. “I had this really vivid experience of thinking: ‘Wow, I really understand how a lot of people feel now about the news,’” he says. “This sense of just being overwhelmed by it coming at you all the time.”

To Harding, Brexit and Nice coverage were symptoms of the same issue: In our easily distracted media age, so many outlets are stuck chasing page views and social shares that they miss the real stories. Deeper analysis and investigative reporting get sidelined for the quick and the shallow. In the rush to cover every Donald Trump tweet, journalists undercover the causes of his election. Meanwhile, misinformation spreads unchecked online, enabled by the attention-seeking algorithms of Silicon Valley’s tech giants.

So, in October 2017, Harding did the unthinkable: He left the BBC to launch a startup. Tortoise Media, a client of Traffic publisher Piano, went live in spring of 2019 after a soft launch in January. It’s part digital publication, part events company. Named for the Aesop fable, Tortoise’s founding principle is “slow news.” It publishes just five stories per day on its smartphone app and website, as well as a quarterly “small book of big reads.” Tortoise Media’s mission, says Harding, is even more fundamental: “to open up journalism,” largely by inviting readers into its newsroom for conversations it calls “ThinkIns.”

It is assisted in that mission by its founders’ pedigrees. Before the BBC, Harding spent five years as the youngest-ever editor of The Times of London, resigning in 2012 after falling out with its owner, Rupert Murdoch. Katie Vanneck-Smith, Tortoise’s publisher, worked with Harding at the Times on the paper’s then-derided but now widely copied paywall and most recently oversaw The Wall Street Journal’s subscription push as president of Dow Jones. Tortoise Chairman Matthew Barzun is a former Obama campaign-finance chair and U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom famous for his celebrity-studded summer parties at the official residence, with guests ranging from Taylor Swift to Theresa May. Together, the three boast impressive media experience and an enviable contacts list.

The idea of open journalism isn’t entirely new. Similar motives are behind Jimmy Wales’ WikiTribune and the citizen-journalist website Bellingcat. But Tortoise’s model is unique.

Four nights a week, Tortoise’s news meeting will be broadcast live online, with paying members invited to join in person and share their views at ThinkIns held in cities across the U.K. and the globe. The format was inspired by Harding’s experience running news conferences and by the success of event organizations like TED, a nonprofit boasting $60 million in annual revenue. “It’s not an event, it’s live journalism,” explains Vanneck-Smith. “We’ll do it whether there’s four of us or whether there’s 60 of us in a room. Its success is not how many people are in the room for that conversation — it’s that the conversation is open.”

While many major news organizations have moved away from reader interaction, Tortoise is making it fundamental to its operation. After each ThinkIn, the event is written up into an article of takeaways, incorporating both expert opinion and members’ views. The central tab on its app is “What Do You Think?,” a space where readers can send in a “letter” or record a video clip that will be watched by the editorial team. Such responses, Vanneck-Smith says, will not only provide editorial feedback, but also influence where Tortoise focuses its original reporting.

That reporting ranges from authoritative analysis of the week’s Brexit events (think Vox’s “explainers” crossed with The Economist’s reported, international takes) to original investigative reporting on the U.K.’s opioid crisis or France’s gilets jaunes protest movement. There are occasional cartoons. Harding says it is not guided by current affairs, but by five core “pillars” of coverage: technology, finance, natural resources, identity, and longevity.

“Nobody has tried this kind of thing before,” says Fran Unsworth, Harding’s successor at BBC News. “I think it’s going to be fascinating seeing if it works.”

In October, Tortoise’s offices in Clerkenwell, central London, showed all the signs of a startup rapidly approaching launch. The walls were plastered with timelines made from Post-it notes, design layouts, and ideas for merchandise (tote bags, cycling jackets) featuring the Tortoise logo and slogans in tasteful serif fonts. The office mascot, a golden bell in the shape of a tortoise, lingered on one desk. On another, the events team was finalizing the guest list for that evening’s ThinkIn. The venue, a Fora coworking space, was temporary (Tortoise’s permanent offices were under construction), and it buzzed with nervous energy.

Tortoise was a few days into its Kickstarter campaign, and it was going well. The company smashed its initial £75,000 target within four hours and, when it closed in mid-November, became the largest journalism Kickstarter ever, raising £539,035 from 2,530 backers. Not that it needs the money: Harding has secured the backing of several private investors, including Barzun, Merrill Lynch executive Bernard Mensah, tech investor Saul Klein, and billionaire Thomson Reuters chairman David Thomson. That has provided funding for at least three years. “They really care about journalism, so they’re invested in what we’re doing ideologically as well as financially,” says Vanneck-Smith.

The Thinking Behind ThinkIns

Tortoise’s goal for ThinkIns is to “open up journalism” by inviting members into its offices for editorial events that it broadcasts live online. A ThinkIn in November called “The Joy of Abstinence: Switch off and recharge?” focused on how to resist the lure of perpetual online stimulation. Before each ThinkIn, the company sends a guide to the session called Tortoise Notes and follows up the discussion with a Tortoise Take on what it learned. Tortoise plans to have ThinkIns four nights a week and will offer tailored ThinkIn sessions to its sponsors.

Like a recent wave of digital media companies, including Axios — and until 2017, BuzzFeed — Tortoise will not feature display ads. One of the slogans on the wall reads, “No ads. No algorithms.” Unlike those companies, Tortoise won’t create native advertising, either. Instead, Vanneck-Smith and the commercial team were hard at work signing up “brand partners,” who in addition to sponsored verticals, events, and product placements, will receive their own bespoke ThinkIns. “Our partners can say, ‘These are our four major staff or client engagement moments in our calendar, we want to program those with conversations and value around things that we care about, and we want Tortoise to host them for us,’” Vanneck-Smith says.

The ThinkIns are distinctive, but the core of Tortoise’s business model is membership. A standard Tortoise membership is £250 per year, with “different prices, different terms, for different types of people,” in Harding’s words. The model was shaped by Vanneck-Smith’s years of persuading customers to pay at The Times of London and The Wall Street Journal, where as of September subscriptions were up 20 percent year-on-year as it added 266,000 subscribers in the quarter. Vanneck-Smith saw at the Journal how events helped drive subscriptions, and how they made readers feel more valued and more likely to stick around. Tortoise members will get digital, print, 10 tickets to live events, and other benefits modeled on The Times’s successful members-only dining and product discounts.

To Vanneck-Smith, memberships are not synonymous with subscriptions. “A subscription service is utility,” Vanneck-Smith explains. “Am I reading it every day? ‘Oh, I haven’t read this in a while, I better get rid of it.’ Whereas membership, you build that emotional connection.” For it to succeed, she says, members need to feel that they are supporting something between a club and a cause. “For me, membership at its core is about belonging,” says Vanneck-Smith.

It’s also about a backlash to the intrusive, annoying world of digital advertising. Tortoise’s mobile site compares its use of just nine cookies to the average British site’s 67, and the app is blessedly free of distracting come-ons that take up valuable micro-real estate. Forgoing the ad revenue, though, means members are paying full freight for the journalism, requiring higher fees. It also means members have to pay up before accessing much of anything on its site.

“A subscription service is utility. Whereas membership, you build that emotional connection. For me, membership at its core is about belonging.”

That October afternoon at Tortoise’s temporary offices, Vanneck-Smith’s commercial team decamped to a conference room to discuss the mechanics of the upcoming launch: onboarding strategies, response rates, customer-relationship management. Promisingly, more than 43 percent of founding members were under 30 (perhaps unsurprisingly, as the reduced £10 one-year memberships via Kickstarter were ten times cheaper than those for over-30s), and backers were signing up from New York to Paris. The location data was particularly important: Tortoise has pledged to hold a ThinkIn in every city that has more than 100 founding members.

Tortoise had been hiring fast, and discarded Macbook boxes were piling up in one corner. “We’re 23 people today,” says Vanneck-Smith. They hope to be pushing 60 by the end of 2019, she says. The first hires include Ceri Thomas, the former editor of BBC investigative series “Panorama” (comparable to “60 Minutes” and PBS’s “Frontline”) and Guardian executive editor Merope Mills. The process hasn’t been entirely straightforward. “We’re definitely not competing on wonga,” Vanneck-Smith joked, using slang for hard cash. “Our sell is not salary and riches. It is fair wages, transparent wages.”

During Harding’s tenure at the BBC, it became embroiled in a bitter dispute over pay disparity between male and female talent, leading to staff protests and, in some cases, senior resignations. “James and I earn the same money,” says Vanneck-Smith. Tortoise hires will get paid by their position rather than by individual merit, and salaries will be disclosed within the organization. “There’s been amazing talent that we’ve wanted to have in the company, but they’ve wanted us to make exceptions for them, and we’re like, ‘Really sorry, we can’t,’” she says.

That night, Vanneck-Smith and her team climbed into a black cab to Borough, on the Thames’s south bank, for that evening’s ThinkIn. (Harding, a bike nut, cycled.) The theme, “The State of Democracy: Is Technology a Boon or a Threat?”, was aptly timed. That afternoon, the British government had announced a 2 percent digital-services tax on the revenues of tech giants. Tortoise had held ThinkIns on the subject twice already and was still tinkering with the format. “The liberty of being a startup,” says Vanneck-Smith, “is a beta is totally acceptable if you tell people it’s a beta.”

Around 60 guests trickled into the venue, a tall and tasteful co-working office offering nighttime views across the city. The bookshelves were decorated with ferns and untouched books on gin, botany, and craft beer. Harding, the emcee, cracked a few jokes (“Editors are part tyrant, part idiot”) and established Tortoise’s one ground rule: No questions. “Everyone in this room should have a seat at the table,” he said. “We want to hear what you think; what your personal experience is.”

There was no stage. Instead, chairs were clustered together around Harding and the three panelists: legal campaigner Gina Miller, technology author Tom Baldwin, and Damian Collins MP, the chair of the parliamentary investigation into the misuse of data during the Brexit referendum. The latter was a coup — a bit like a Washington media startup getting Robert Mueller to an event on Russia before publishing its first story.

“It’s a tool for listening. I’ve seen, in politics and diplomacy, the energy that is released if you listen to people and stop just talking to them.”

For Harding, ThinkIns give Tortoise “a way of making sure that you’re hearing from more voices, in a way that gives you leads on stories but also informs positions that Tortoise takes.” For Tortoise members, they offer an entrée into the previously inaccessible process of journalism, as well as a chance to rub elbows with the political and business elite.

“Everybody likes to feel important, being in the room, being part of the conversation,” Vanneck-Smith says. “In person and personal really matter.” Tortoise’s print quarterly will be just as valuable for the same reason, she says, noting that Journal readers said they valued live events and print more than its digital offerings by wide margins. “Beautiful things that you can feel, touch, be a part of — that will reaffirm that connection.”

For Barzun, the ThinkIns recall his work as an organizer on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. “It’s a tool for listening,” he says. “I’ve seen, in politics and diplomacy, the energy that is released if you listen to people and stop just talking at them.”

The ThinkIn conversation proved lively and interesting. One audience member revealed personal experience in buying Facebook “dark ads” (which conceal the true advertiser) while running a local election campaign. But the evening also revealed some of the challenges Tortoise will face. For one thing: None of the other Tortoise editors said a word. And when the conversation turned to regulating political advertising on social media, one member, Paul, raised his voice. “I’m a bit skeptical when it comes to a bunch of elites, if you like, making these decisions,” he said. In an evening of mild-mannered consensus, such a statement stood out as almost radical.

Harding sees encouraging dialogue as Tortoise’s — and journalism’s — fundamental challenge today. “People feel locked out of power, and locked out of the media and news itself,” he says. But looking out through the venue’s towering windows at the rush-hour traffic below, listening to an audience that politely agreed with itself repeatedly, one sensed that if there was a physical manifestation of a media bubble, this was it.

Still, for Harding, Tortoise feeling separate from the divided, toxic media conversation online is partly the point. “In the attention economy, there is a business to be had in taking polar positions. But there’s also a really good business to be had in examining those positions and a whole range of others in between,” he says. “I think that there is a huge number of people — and a really large untapped energy — that exists in the reasonable, center ground. And the response so far tells me there’s something there.”

“If it turns out that the world really is as polarized as some of these new digital media incarnations suggest, then we’ve got a problem,” he says.

“I was actually quite unhappy about how it went,” Harding told me a few days later. “The microphones were a problem. The setup wasn’t exactly right. We needed more of our editors actually in the mix of the conversation.” Still, he was upbeat: Feedback had been positive, and there was plenty of time for tweaks.

Getting the events formula right will be critical, since Tortoise is competing in an increasingly crowded space. “It’s become something people have done when they’ve gone, ‘Oh shit, advertising’s looking a bit crap, how do we make money?’” Vanneck-Smith says. But companies like The Atlantic, Recode, and Forbes have successfully made events critical to their businesses. Forbes now holds 60 events annually with margins above 40 percent, according to Digiday. The Atlantic’s events reportedly make up some 20 percent of its revenue.

“People feel locked out of power, and locked out of the media and news itself.”

“It’s a bit like putting on a different play every night with a different script and different actors, and you only get one shot at it,” says Matt McAllester, managing director of Intelligence Squared, a company that produces debate events. “It’s hard to pull that off. If others have struggled, it’s because that might not be their core mission.”

By making the events a central pillar of the newsroom — a source of content and interaction with members — Tortoise is setting itself apart. ThinkIn tickets are not a separate purchase; they are the product, just as much as the daily stories or the print quarterly. The hope is that interacting regularly with the people producing your news may foster a greater sense of belonging than, say, a tote bag. Tortoise’s aim is to create a relationship rather than a page view.

“New media companies enter a clogged, distracted world, so you damn well better offer something so essential, so unmissable that it pulls people away from their long list of daily habits and distractions,” says Axios CEO Jim VandeHei, whose company has done just that less than two years since its launch. “That’s harder than it was a few years ago.”

Harding is aware of the size of the task Tortoise faces. He recalled pitching Tortoise to one prominent Silicon Valley investor, who declined to fund it. “He said, ‘You’re not even competing against other providers of content. You’re competing against anything that anyone can do on their mobile phone. That’s almost impossible to do.’”

But Tortoise isn’t running the same race as the large-scale, solely ad-driven media startups of the past. Compared to other news operations, Tortoise is as much corrective as competitor.

“In the latest journalism surveys, two-thirds of people can’t tell the difference between reliable news and unreliable news, good news providers and bad news providers” says Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of The Guardian and author of “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now.” He sees promise in the Tortoise model. “It’s a winning proposition — if the stuff is good enough,” he says. “You need really good people and to give them the time in which to write and think. You’ll have lower output. But it may be that people will be willing to pay for that if it’s of sufficiently high quality.”

So far, willingness to pay appears high. The haul from Tortoise’s Kickstarter is one indicator. Another is the success of other “slow news” providers, like Netherlands-based De Correspondent. It recently announced its 2019 expansion into English, raising $2.6 million from nearly 46,000 donors in 30 days. Like Tortoise, it marketed itself as an “antidote to breaking news” that will open journalism up to its readers, including via regular conversations between the public and its reporters.

Outlets like De Correspondent and Tortoise are fundamentally a bet that the press can, by switching tacks, earn back some of the trust it has lost in recent years by chasing clicks. “My biggest worry is that unless we provide alternatives to the noise, and alternatives to the clickbait, the worst thing of all is that people just turn off,” says Vanneck-Smith. “That’s not a good place for society.”

She and Harding believe Tortoise has the wind at its back. “It feels of the zeitgeist. I think there is a movement occurring,” Vanneck-Smith says. “It feels like there is a genuine opportunity for a new form of journalism.”