Slow news startup Tortoise Media is pivoting to audio journalism because it is better at converting listeners to members, reaching younger audiences and bringing in revenue.
The publication launched three and a half years ago on a pledge to produce slow journalism: publish less frequently, but more intentionally. That idea resonated with those feeling overwhelmed by, and subsequently avoiding, the news.
Tortoise initially thought the natural extension of its mission was in long-reads; articles which could take up to 30 minutes to read. But it was wrong.
Readers were only sticking around for around four minutes, according to co-founder Katie Vanneck-Smith, speaking at the Publisher Podcast Summit last week.
Podcasts are a different story. Tortoise's audience prefers to listen so the team has sought out a £10m investment to expand into audio. The proof of that new firepower lies in a six-part podcast series it commissioned and published quickly surrounding the death of Queen Elizabeth II, which hit 100,000 downloads in the mourning period alone.
Vanneck-Smith said that the audio team was profitable within 12 months of operation - but Tortoise overall was not.
Podcasts can make money in four different ways.
Advertising - but only on shows published off-platform, like on Apple Podcasts and Spotify (Tortoise also offers an ad-free, premium experience on its own website and app).
IP deals on big podcast shows: the biggest hit to date is Sweet Bobby, a story about one of the world’s most sophisticated catfishers. Vanneck-Smith revealed Tortoise has struck a deal with a major UK TV and film studio (which cannot yet be named) to buy the rights to turn the story into a film.
There is then studio work, producing high-quality podcasts for brands. And, of course, membership conversions. Tortoise says that podcasts are its leading format for converting audiences to members.
The podcast model
Tortoise offers a mixture of 'always-on' daily and weekly shows, plus a broader "box set" series.
The Slow Newscast, for example, drills into one topic dominating the news. Recent episodes have zoned in on the crashing of the UK economy, controversial online figure Andrew Tate and scandals in the British Virgin Islands.
Episode topics which really take off tend to get commissioned into larger, limited-series podcasts. A good example is Londongrad, a seven-episode series (plus one bonus episode) about the Lebedev family, and how Russian money has seeped its way into the English capital. That started out as a slow newscast and was three times more popular than average, probably also because of the war in Ukraine.
Vanneck-Smith says that these consistent release shows create an "always-on" acquisition funnel. There are rarely any big spikes, which means presenters can effectively plug events and memberships into the shows. Show notes (transcripts of the episodes) are not ground-breaking, but the frequent nod to "leaving a link in the show notes" is a surprisingly effective way to convert audiences.
When publishing a big multi-parter podcast every month, the publisher either drip-feeds it to audiences off-platform (i.e. on Spotify or Apple Podcasts) or makes it available to "binge" through on its own platforms (i.e. website or app). That is a powerful call to subscribe.
This produces big spikes in listenership followed by a steep decline. But having both a top-down and bottom-up approach amounts to steady podcast growth. It is also drawing in a younger crowd: the average Tortoise podcast listener is 29, whereas the average member is 39.
War on talent
Vanneck-Smith commented that there are no major, bespoke podcast platforms on the market. Spotify and Apple Podcasts offer podcasts as a bolt-on to music streaming services, and therefore the data and user experience is not built with news publishers in mind.
She welcomes disruption to the market, touting BBC Sounds, the BBC's own podcast app, or Danish company Podimo that moved into this space.
The big challenge ahead is the "war on talent", says Vanneck-Smith. What seems to have worked is poaching talent from the BBC, case in point snagging a former editor of the Today Programme and Panorama in Ceri Thomas. Then two, pairing up well-established journalists and producers.
"Journalists need to have a partner in crime in a producer, and that’s quite a different cultural way of working for journalists to have a buddy rather than be single-minded and do it by themselves."
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