One criticism leveled at reader-funded journalism is that it can mean only the elite have access to quality information. But slow-news membership outlet Tortoise, which will go live Jan. 14 to its 2,530 strong-member base, has ambitions to be as inclusive as possible, offering lower-priced tiers and inviting members to help shape its coverage through member events and conferences.
During its monthlong Kickstarter campaign, which ended in mid-November, 2,530 people collectively donated nearly £550,000 ($692,000) to the project, beating previous expectations of £75,000 ($94,450) from just 1,000 members.
According to publisher and co-founder Katie Vanneck-Smith, former president of Dow Jones, Tortoise already has backing from several minority investors. But the purpose of the campaign was to gather a group of founding members and a preinstalled community.
“We’re creating a different type of newsroom, for and with our members,” she said, adding that additional members will be able to join Tortoise in April. “Members will inform our thinking and our product and how we expand. They are core to our approach. In-person and personal is a real differentiator. We want to build the most diverse and inclusive membership base of a paid-for-journalism business today.”
According to Vanneck-Smith, 42 percent of its founding members are under 30 years old, much younger than some news organizations that still rely on print subscribers. Tortoise is headquartered in London, and a quarter of its members live outside the U.K., mostly in the U.S. and Europe. Vanneck-Smith wants Tortoise editors to meet 40 percent of its membership by March, by hosting two breakfast events a month and regular news conferences, which she says will inform the editorial direction. Tortoise calls these sessions “ThinkIns.”
So far, Tortoise has run around 40 ThinkIns with attendee numbers ranging from 40 to 120, on topics including the U.S. midterm elections and the future of U.K. democracy. The idea is for editors to lead discussions at these events, the results of which will help inform the five daily pieces of journalism Tortoise publishes. The publication says it will still tackle news around issues such as Brexit but in a more reflective way. Each Monday, it will also host a news conference looking back on the previous week’s news.
“We are still a newsroom,” said Vanneck-Smith. “The ThinkIns are the fuel of our journalism and the engine room, but they aren’t the full output. ThinkIns are an organized system of listening; we’re uncovering stories that are not always told.”
Spaces for the ThinkIns Tortoise is holding in January are already taken, the company said. Topics for those events will include the state of racism and how older generations have created a more challenging place for younger people to thrive.
Tortoise, co-founded by James Harding, former editor of The Times and director of BBC News, has already attracted high-profile editors to join its ranks, which currently stand at 34 employees.
De Correspondent, another membership news outlet taking a more considered and audience-involved approach to creating content, offers periodical free access and invites specific people to join if they have a worthwhile experience. Nic Newman, editor of the Reuters Institute Digital News Report, points out Tortoise editors have been working hard to avoid accusations of elitism, but noted that a paywall inevitably limits the size of a publisher’s audience and pushes toward a certain set of demographics.
To counter this, Tortoise says its membership is designed to be affordable. The full price in spring with be £250 ($314.82) a year, but it has offered discounted pricing and tiers for under-30s and groups. It will also introduce a student price tag at launch, and it expects partner companies will fund memberships at scale for certain groups. Non-members will be able to buy tickets to ThinkIns, which include a two-week membership.
Another way to broaden its member catchment is looking outside of urban areas. Every other week, it aims to host a ThinkIn outside its own newsroom, for instance covering topics like knife crime in a school in North London, or visiting churches and mosques outside the capital.
“Everything we publish will be the Tortoise take, our journalism and opinion,” said Vanneck-Smith. “The difference is we want to listen differently and hear from varied voices to inform our point of view.”