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Tortoise rides a subscriber wave: 'It is harder to be popular than it is to be quality'


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

October 23, 2018 | 6 min read

Good news came fast for slow news startup Tortoise which has secured over £350,000 worth of Kickstarter backing in under a week. The group’s publisher attributed this success to a “renaissance” in public support for paid-for, premium titles and expressed a desire for the plucky Tortoise to ride that wave.

Katie Vanneck-Smith, former president of The Wall Street Journal, is one of the high-profile figures leading the ad-free, slow news title as it gears up for a 2019 launch. She co-founded the brand with James Harding, formerly editor of The Times and director of BBC News, and Matthew Barzun who has served as US ambassador to Sweden and the UK. In short, the Tortoise is being incubated by top industry talent.

At the time of writing, Tortoise had secured £359,282 funding against a £75,000 target thanks to 1,405 backers. The drive still has 24 days to go. It also boasts backing from eight private investors including David Thomson, of Thomson Reuters fame, and Saul Klein, co-founder of venture capital firm Local Globe.

Now it has the funding, it needs to deliver on its pledge of “open journalism".

Subscription propensity

The promise to build "a different kind of journalism" – an antidote to fast and free media – is a bold claim, but Vanneck-Smith's position is that there has ever been a better time to launch. “The trends look favourably on quality paid-for news. The propensity to pay for it is at the highest point in 50 years.”

According to Vanneck-Smith, more consumers are ready to shun ads in place of memberships. “There is a wave of consumer acceptance. The technology has finally caught up with the aspirations."

At a time when circulations are generally shrinking at pace, many of the world’s quality news brands like the Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Telegraph, and The Times are boasting more subscribers than they’ve ever had.

“There has been a renaissance in traditional media, they are all at record high levels of paid-for customers. Over the last two years, there has been a genuine flight to quality. The WSJ, which I have just left, has the highest number of paying customers in its history.”

To exploit this development, Tortoise is looking to slip into a niche somewhere between the Economist’s output and a Ted Talk.

The title carries the strapline ‘Slow down, wise up’ and is positioning itself as a salve to fake news, misinformation and churn.

Its solution is to invite members to take part in something akin to a newspaper's daily conference dubbed ‘the Thinkin’. A 25-page document will brief subscribers before they dial in. Theoretically, members will be able to pitch in and help direct it, in part like stakeholders. On this model, The Guardian asked whether Tortoise can be "more than a rich person’s club"?

These sessions will form the cornerstone of Tortoise’s USP. Vanneck-Smith said: “We know how great a news conference can be, it is special, particularly if you are not a journalist. Opening that up serves two purposes, it creates an organised system of listening, before we land on our point of view, we listen to as many people as possible.”

On top of this, the title will tour the UK once a week, looking to penetrate places often missed by mainstream media. This could include factory floors, prisons and places of worship – particularly outside of London.

No more than five contemplative pieces of analysis or opinion will be published each day and these will be collected into a quarterly print product, reflecting a mantra of approaching news “not as it happens, but when it’s ready”.

Quality is easier than popular

The title wears its inspirations on its sleeve. Vanneck-Smith was particularly full of praise for the positioning, audience and output of The Economist. She did concede it provided “only one worldview – of finance and free markets”. Tortoise will take inspiration from this model while attempting to cast a wider net. To this end, it aims to pair the “investigations and analysis of The Economist with how Ted Talks has reimagined lectures to make them accessible".

This arguably sounds like a difficult promise to deliver on.

Vanneck-Smith felt differently. She moved to the startup from Dow Jones to “start from scratch” and build a new, sustainable revenue model and media brand. She said It was easier than disrupting and reimagining any existing and entrenched, fast-paced media company.

Also, she was of the belief that in this day in age, it is easier to launch a quality proposition than a popular one.

“It is harder to be popular than it is to be quality. Look at BuzzFeed, Vox, Vice, Unilad and LadBible, they are all brilliantly popular but their commercial models are tied up in the popularity stakes, keeping up with what is in and what is out. Even popularity is accelerating.”

Instead, this new model will look to address the many issues propagated by always-on, mass-appeal media, according to Vanneck-Smith. “Among the constant endless scrawl, the news is now noise. People are overwhelmed, anxious, have FOMO, and are turning off because it is too much. Tortoise is an antidote to this accelerated age. A different more thoughtful, slower newsfeed to address the consumer angst.“

To help build a newsroom numbering around 45 people, Chris Cook, policy editor of BBC Newsnight, has been brought aboard by Harding. The title will scale up slowly in the coming months. The extent of which will be determined by an already over-performing Kickstarter campaign that closes on 15 November.

Vanneck-Smith outlined some objectives for the title. Firstly to grow its member base in order to grow its editorial team. Next to break unique exclusives and become known for the slower 'Turtle Take'. This soft launch has steeled her on the future and sustainability of paid-for news.

That's because about 38% of the title's Kickstarter backers are aged under 30. Legacy media titles may look at that demographic – and the funds flooding Tortoise's way – with envy.

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