You would think that a global pandemic would prove fatal for any new media business. But over the last 18 months, slow journalism start-up Tortoise has created a membership community of over 110,000 and a monthly social reach of 12 million. This growth is driven largely by word of mouth - half of their new members come from member referrals.
Tortoise went live in 2019, seeking to offer a cure for news fatigue by giving people somewhere to go when they feel overwhelmed by the relentless news cycle.
Given the sense of uncertainty and isolation triggered by the pandemic, Tortoise’s director of communications Tessa Murray said it was unsurprising that readers turned to slow journalism.
"People want to be part of the conversation; they want to understand things better," she added.
The Reuters Institute Digital News Report found that concerns surrounding the spread of misinformation by politicians and social media were leaving many unsure about what news publications they could trust.
In contrast, slow journalism avoids adding to the mass of information that already exists. Instead, it considers what forces are driving the news agenda.
"The Tortoise Daily Sensemaker email has been incredibly popular because it has cut through that noise to give a straight take on some of the things that matter each day," says Murray.
The pandemic also triggered a collective loss of agency. With the nation in lockdown, and roughly 11 million people on furlough, many felt powerless about their situation. It is within this context that Tortoise’s slow journalism model really stood out by inviting all of its members to ‘have a seat at the table’.
Our network is at the heart of everything we do.Tessa Murray
Central to the Tortoise business model are their ‘Think In’ sessions. They create an ‘open newsroom’ forum where Tortoise members can share their ideas and opinions with the editorial team. Covering both local and global topics, the Think Ins empower readers to influence how Tortoise reports stories, as well as the future direction of the company. For example, a recent Think In titled 'How can Tortoise go local?', invited members to critique the idea of creating a new Tortoise Local hub in the North East of England.
Last year, over 120,000 people attended digital Think Ins, attesting to the value that readers place on being able to contribute their view to the news agenda. But Murray said that these discussions were mutually beneficial.
"It’s a really iterative process," she says. "The Think Ins are how we gather crucial information that shapes what we do."
By inviting its members into the conversation, the Think Ins allow Tortoise to learn from a multitude of viewpoints, ensuring their journalism is truly inclusive.
During the pandemic, Tortoise’s member-centred approach offered access to a community when many people did not have one.
"Tortoise provides a place where members can raise ideas and concerns, they can be listened to, and they can be part of an active conversation."