We are seeing a proliferation of media startups trying to innovate the news industry. But becoming the head honcho of these enterprises is sometimes a cryptic endeavour. Journalists who take to these roles will find it requires new and old skills. In this series, we talk to the leaders of media startups of all sizes to demystify their job descriptions and understand what they have learned in the role.
'Slow down and wise up' was the smooth selling point of one UK media startup vying to take a more patient approach to the news.
Slow journalism publisher Tortoise Media launched a Kickstarter campaign in November 2018. It promised not to chase news headlines but instead focus on what is driving the news agenda. That premise resonated with a lot of people, and Tortoise sailed past its initial £75,000 target and managed to crowdfund in excess of £500,000.
In January 2019, it launched in beta and officially went live in April 2019. Through its signature ThinkIn sessions, members meet Tortoise journalists in physical events to freely discuss important news topics and those conversations directly inform and feed into its journalism. Throughout the pandemic, the ThinkIns went virtual but they remained a hit amongst its audiences. Tortoise has also ventured into the worlds of podcasting and data journalism.
To date, it has some 130,000 members (including paid and trial members) and it also receives revenue from commercial partnerships, mainly through ThinkIn sessions, data journalism plus a range of audio services, including podcasts, and IP and rights buyouts around content.
There are three experienced brains behind the outfit: Katie Vanneck-Smith, co-founder and publisher, former president of Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal; Matthew Barzun, co-founder and chairman, and a former US Ambassador to Sweden and then the UK; and James Harding, co-founder and editor-in-chief, and the former director of BBC News and former editor of The Times.
Journalism.co.uk spoke to Vanneck-Smith about what it takes to do her job. As a co-founder, she wears a few hats but ultimately takes the lead on marketing, memberships and business growth.
At Tortoise, and like at many startups, there can be cross-overs too. For example, she does join editorial meetings in the same way that her fellow co-founders lend a hand in marketing and commercial work. They join forces when it comes to speaking with investors and handling commercial partnerships. The interview has been lightly edited for brevity.
How did you come up with the idea for your startup? Considering how many startups fail, what gave you the confidence to pursue this idea?
James [Harding] and I have worked in newsrooms long enough to be able to sense what we might try differently. The reaction we had from investors and supporters in the early days when we were just incubating the idea gave us confidence that there really was a demand for a different kind of news. An open newsroom that takes its time. One that has created a business model that challenges the traditional media culture of "church" versus "state" (editorial versus advertising) and is trying to build a business model where what is good for business is good for journalism and good for members. Making money should not undermine journalism.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, there have been many other moments to maintain our confidence, little moments that show that we might just be on to something. Early on in 2019, at one in a series of Member's breakfast meet-ups, one of our members piped up: "what we need to do next is…" In that moment, both James and I knew that the idea, a newsroom built with and for our members, was possible - and in fact was a reality.
That same year - at a ThinkIn on start-ups in our old newsroom on Eastcastle Street, one of the experts shared the success, facts and data with everyone. It was a reminder that most of us will fail in our ideas - however, they went on to cite that older entrepreneurs were more likely to succeed. James and I take great comfort from this: it is great to be old in our market.
What sort of important decisions do you need to make regularly? And what is your decision-making process?
Any decision to spend money is important as a start-up. When you are a small newsroom, you feel every bump in the road — hiring decisions are especially crucial. Any editorial decision is important. How we work with partners too. Sometimes we have said no to people who wanted to spend money with us because we did not feel the relationship would work. We are not for everyone. In terms of process, it is a lot of instinct, but the critical factor for me is always about our members: how would this benefit them?
Keep listening. That is the best advice I can give.
What are the key challenges with running a media startup and Tortoise specifically? What is your problem-solving process?
Matching the scale of our ambition with the size of the team is always difficult. Especially this last year or so with the pandemic, we have had to fight hard to protect the culture that glues everyone together and keeps us honest and on point of what we are doing. So we do have to prioritise, and we do have to keep an eye on people's workloads, on who has capacity, on making sure we are using people in the best ways.
Keep listening. That is the best advice I can give. If you have a culture that is always listening, problems become easier to predict and niggles are easier to solve. But a good crisis can also serve to remind you of what you are good at and can provide real clarity.
Why did Tortoise decide to raise money via crowdfunding? And do you have any advice for anyone else looking to fund their startup this way?
We are a business built with and for our members, so the Kickstarter was never really about the money but about the support. Launching the app in beta with a community of 3,000 or so people who had committed and had skin in the game meant we set out how we meant to keep going - with members actively involved in telling us what worked and what did not, and in actively contributing to the journalism. Really we could not have done it any other way.
When will you stop considering Tortoise a startup?
I do not think it matters, there are lots of arbitrary milestones. When we hit 500,000 members or 250 staff? When we have newsrooms in other countries? Thinking like a startup suits us at the moment and that is as far as it goes. Hopefully, that spirit never leaves us.
Given Tortoise is a membership-driven organisation, what changes have you made to the business in recent years based on audience feedback?
The pivot to audio-first for the lead story of the week was very much driven by members. The introduction and expansion and Slow Views, which is our op-ed format, was member-led. The hybrid ThinkIn format has been shaped by member feedback on the digital experience. Loads of the functionality in the app is from member suggestions. The key things members contribute though are stories - some of our biggest investigations have come from member contributions in ThinkIns.
What are the key skills needed to do your job? How do you work on them?
Be curious. Be bold and brave - never be afraid to ask - no is just a start point. Read, listen - meet as many people as you can - everything is an opportunity to learn new things.
How do you deal with stress?
I go for long, fast walks in the countryside. Pound it out. And I like a glass of red wine.
What is one skill people might not expect you to need when leading a startup?
You have to let go of quite a lot of stuff and be okay with people not doing things how you would have done them.
What advice would you give media professionals who aspire to become lead startups?
Make friends with finance and get married to tech. Without the money people and the tech people on your side, you are scuppered.
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