A Wall Street media stalwart, a former head of the BBC’s news division and an American ambassador walk into a bar.
And there, and later through various meetings, the team behind Tortoise Media sat down to track the course of what they hope is a massive shift in the ethos of British independent journalism.
Tortoise Media has anything but a typical origin story. The London-based outlet got its start with upwards of ten million pounds in angel investment, but it also raised the highest amount to date for a media project on Kickstarter — £539,035 to be exact (nearly one million dollars Canadian). All because a group of Brits were tired of a news media steeped in the go-go-go of U.K. news’ DNA.
Co-founder and former president of the Wall Street Journal Katie Vanneck-Smith says that Tortoise was born out of the political turmoil surrounding the two seismic political events that shaped the last half-decade.
“The original idea of Tortoise sort of sprung out of the news shocks of 2016. So, you had both the Trump victory in the U.S., you had the Brexit vote in the UK,” she says. Her co-founders, Matthew Barzun — who at the time was the U.S. ambassador to the UK, and James Harding, who was at that time director of news at the BBC, both felt that these were not great outcomes. “How did this happen? How did the mainstream news media on both sides of the Atlantic miss these stories?”
The problem, the team at Tortoise surmised, was that the media was too obsessed with breaking stories and not enough focus was given to what the forces are behind that news. So began the building of the company — though, according to Vanneck-Smith, it took some convincing to bring her on board.
“I remember James calling me later in 2017. I’m in New York. He’s obviously in the U.K. And he said, ‘You may have heard I’m leaving the BBC.’ So, I said, ‘Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it? An editor running a business, what a terrible idea.’”
The conversation didn’t stop there. Over Christmas drinks, Harding pitched the concept of a slow news feed, real reader engagement in the selection of stories and a new model of media creation. It piqued Vanneck-Smith’s interest and she signed on in the summer of 2018, shortly after the first angel investment was received.
But why a mixed model of traditional investment and a crowdfunding campaign? Tortoise used the momentum of the 2018 Kickstarter, and the 2,200 backers who came with it, to refine the product before its launch in 2019. What started with a pitch of five stories a day morphed into a much smaller output after feedback from members.
The company holds exclusive ThinkIns for their members, which allow the project’s supporters a seat at a press conference where they get to speak about their ideas and concerns. Tortoise’s current pricing structures ranges from a £10 a month trial membership to £250 for a two-year option. Crowdfunding initially amounted to about 10 per cent of the project’s initial budget and that has now swelled to 30 per cent. The initial funding round gave Tortoise a three-year runway. A possibility, says Vanneck-Smith, partially because of the experience of the company’s founders.
“Most entrepreneurs, weirdly, are young and we are definitely the has-beens of the entrepreneurial space. Like we’re the old fuckers, right? And, with being old, comes some benefits, which is that, you know, we both have networks, we have people that are interested in seeing what we do.”
The choice to go slow was a deliberate one, something that Vanneck-Smith says holds true even as the company has built momentum — growing to over 46,000 members.
“The pain point that we addressed was that people do want to be able to slow down, people did want a fresh, new alternative that was more thoughtful, more reflective,” says Vanneck-Smith. “Because I think a slower form of news is a wiser form of news.”
Her advice for those looking to start a new media venture, large or small, is to have a co-founder who, as she puts it, “doesn’t stick to their knitting.” Meaning: both the business side and the editorial side are of interest to the leaders of the company.