From Nando's to a refugee camp, Tortoise is taking its newsroom out into the real world

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

When the new London-based news platform Tortoise chose to investigate migration it uprooted its newsroom to a refugee camp on Lesbos and convened a recorded discussion in which local migrants and Greek islanders were invited to participate.

This week, as Tortoise emerged from beta and went “live”, it took the newsroom to a Dover branch of Nando’s, the millennial-friendly chicken chain, to continue the debate by examining the impact of migration on the United Kingdom. Nando’s customers were encouraged to put down their peri peri wings and have their say, alongside those with professional and lived experience.

These events, known as “ThinkIns”, are filmed as content for the platform’s paying members.

Tortoise is unlike anything else in the market. Its brand identity as a languid reptile is a symbol of its commitment to “slow-news”; patiently-compiled pieces, heavy in context and expert attribution, intended to stand apart from the bewildering flurry of online content.

But it’s the openness and mobility of the newsroom which really marks Tortoise out as different – giving users the chance to engage directly with the editorial process. Four evenings a week, Monday through Thursday, it becomes a debating chamber where Tortoise members are encouraged to “take your seat at the table” and to interact with journalists and hand-picked specialists on the chosen ThinkIn theme.

While other news outlets approach experts for reactive comment on their stories, or invite readers to have their say online after publication, Tortoise reverses this process. “You are a member of our newsroom,” paying customers are advised.

This month’s ThinkIns range from global politics and economics (“What does China really want in Britain?”) to society (“Snowflakes and gammons: what the generations get wrong about each other”). Every Monday, members can attend a ThinkIn called ‘The big question”, where they may propose subjects for Tortoise to cover.

Members shape stories

The Drum attended a ThinkIn on “The Nuclear Option”, at which nuclear scientists and environmentalists, sitting on newsroom sofas, engaged in robust exchanges on whether nuclear energy could be better exploited to reduce carbon emissions. The event opened with a clip from the Jack Lemmon nuclear disaster movie “The China Syndrome”, as a segue to exploring public perceptions of nuclear power.

“We are trying to make sure that the ThinkIn is the engine of our journalism,” says James Harding, co-founder and editor of Tortoise, and a former director of news at the BBC and editor of The Times. “We want people to come here and the experience to be interesting and informative but also to make sure that, out of it, we get story ideas and better informed opinions.”

Tortoise has built a founding membership of 6,700 in its beta phase and has met “face-to-face” with 21% of its members, says Katie Vanneck-Smith, co-founder and publisher. Of the London-based members, 41% have already attended a ThinkIn, most of which take place in a Fora work-share building near Oxford Circus. More than 40% of Tortoise members are under-30. Half the members are based in London, with 20% living in 48 countries outside of the UK.

At the end of last year, Tortoise raised £539,000 in fees from 2,530 founding members. It was the biggest journalist project staged on Kickstarter. Members pay £250 for three years, or £50 if they are under-30. But that money will only go so far.

In its beta phase early this year, Tortoise produced a phenomenal output of high-quality stories from well-known writers. Its most popular pieces have been a multimedia investigation into the growth of opioid use in north-east England; a ThinkIn-inspired read, headlined “The Question of the Question”, on the phrasing of a second Brexit referendum; and a piece of reportage on links between the football terraces and far-right identity politics in economically-challenged areas.

Tortoise is now less prolific, publishing one story a day and not five, because readers complained that a deluge of long reads was not their idea of slow news. “They said ‘You were meant to be slowing down and I can’t read five things a day’,” Vanneck-Smith says. The new publishing rhythm should be less demanding on the editorial budget.

Harding has assembled a team of 40 staff, 85% of which are journalists. There are big ex- BBC heavyweights such as Harding’s longstanding right-hand man Keith Blackmore; the former editor of Panorama and Today Ceri Thomas; and ex-Newsnight reporter Chris Cook. It has recruited Guardian executives David Taylor and Merope Mills, and the former editor of HuffPost UK, Polly Curtis. Its members editor, Liz Moseley, is a former chief marketing officer of Cannes Lions.

Given that Tortoise is an advertising-free platform, it will need other revenue streams beyond its income from membership fees.

Vanneck-Smith is a marketer and former president of Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal. An old colleague of Harding’s at The Times and Sunday Times, she pioneered direct reader relationship schemes, such as Times+, to drive subscriptions and to serve advertisers with better understanding of individual reader interests.

Partnerships over advertising

Tortoise’s business model takes a different approach. Despite intimate knowledge of its audience, Tortoise eschews advertising in favour of lucrative commercial partnerships. The two founding partners are Fora, a work-share challenger to WeWork, and Santander, which fielded its executive chairman Ana Botín at a ThinkIn in Brussels last month.

Vanneck-Smith says she is looking for around 10 partners in total, each of them making major contributions. “They are sizeable and meaningful relationships on both sides,” she says. “We like to commit for three years because we believe you can’t really build anything valuable in less.” She hopes to attract companies with chief executives who believe that “business is stepping into the vacuum of leadership”.

Two more partners are in trial phase, she says. “We ask these guys to commit to seven-figure sums per year, it’s not a small ask. So you want to try before you buy.” While partners have no say on Tortoise content, the platform will look for common ground. “Whilst they don’t pick the conversations or the topics, we design a series of conversations and ThinkIns that will match their ambitions,” says Vanneck-Smith. “You brief us a bit like you brief an agency and we come back with a series of things we care about in that space.”

She says that the membership scheme she is building at Tortoise is more fundamental than those she oversaw at Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper stable. “In that world the editor is still omnipotent and you have a parent-child relationship…it was a passive relationship,” she says. “Even though I spent 10 years trying to make membership a real thing it was always on the fringes, the benefits that came with a subscription to this product which you loved. The membership was never really a true thing.”

Tortoise will soon uproot to a new newsroom being prepared by Fora in London’s Berners Street. In the spirit of open journalism it will be on the ground-floor and glass-fronted, allowing passers-by to look in on Harding and the team. Its current space has the feel of a private members’ club lounge. “The idea was not to do a shiny floor studio,” says Harding. “You are coming into our newsroom, where we work every day. We’ve rigged it with cameras and audio to make it work.”

Google’s News Innovation Fund has given Tortoise money to develop live video of ThinkIns for members attending remotely via the platform’s app. Soho House is another partner and is staging ThinkIns at its premises around the world. An index business, Tortoise Intelligence, will produce its first global rankings on the theme of preparation for the advent of artificial intelligence. There are even plans for a festival with a series of ThinkIns.

Ultimately the success of Tortoise will be determined by the strength and impact of its content. That in turn will be determined by the diversity and expertise of the audience that sustains it, Harding believes. “What we know and [our] access to information is born of our membership, which makes it incredibly important that we reach out to a really wide membership of different experiences.” Vanneck-Smith agrees: “We have got to make sure that we are different in our socio-economic diversity and we have as many milkmen and nurses as journalists.”

If Tortoise is to win out, it must look beyond the media bubble to a global membership that can act as its sources and ambassadors. Vanneck-Smith is under no illusions about this. “In journalism circles people know of Tortoise because of James, and the list of names (on the staff). But in the big wide world we are a tiny, piddly start-up that very few people will have heard of.”

Yet, as the fabled experience of Aesop’s hare teaches us, the race is not always for the swift…

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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