Tortoise’s ThinkIn events – forums for “civilised disagreement” – have been very successful in engaging its membership, and the publisher uses the same format to organise events for its commercial partners.

Having de-emphasised its app as an audience touchpoint, Tortoise has embraced audio as a natural format for its long-form, narrative-led stories.
Although physical events will resume when the pandemic allows it, the outlet will keep online/hybrid events in its events portfolio.

“Slow” and “open.” These two words sum up why Tortoise stands out from the majority of news publishers.

Tortoise is slow, because it chooses to cover only a few topics and stories, and it doesn’t aim to cover breaking news. And open, because its members are invited to have their say on the publication’s editorial decisions.

“Together with our members we shape the news agenda, the way we choose to report the world,” Liz Moseley, CMO and Partner at Tortoise Media, told participants of WAN-IFRA’s recent Forum Francophone: Abonnements numériques (Digital subscriptions) event.

Launched in April 2019, Tortoise now has 110,000 members. According to Moseley, the main reason people join Tortoise is a reaction “against the worst of what they might consider to be the high-volume, low-trust mainstream media output.”

About half of the members pay for their own membership, while the other half are funded by Tortoise’s corporate partners through a bursary scheme called Tortoise Network. The sponsored membership programme allows the publisher, in collaboration with charities, to bring in people who otherwise would be excluded.

Moseley said that this is a very deliberate strategy that is designed to ensure a diversity of voices: “It gives us a much greater richness to the possibilities of stories that we can cover in an authentic way.”

ThinkIns – opening the editorial conference

A keystone of Tortoise’s audience engagement strategy are the ThinkIn events, which Moseley described as building on the idea of the editorial conference. But instead of the newsroom discussing its editorial point of view and news agenda internally, members and outside speakers are also included in these conversations.

The concept is relatively simple: each ThinkIn tackles a specific question, with participating members and expert speakers voicing their views in a “forum for civilized disagreement.” The goal is to formulate an editorial point of view by the end of the event. “We don’t always produce a leader column, but we ought to be in a position to do that by the end,” Moseley said.

Moseley underlined the importance of these events in building strong relationships with the audience. ThinkIns started as live events, allowing members to physically join the team in the newsroom, and about half of members participated in them. Since ThinkIns moved online because of the pandemic, about 70 percent of members have been to at least one.

Tortoise has also observed that participating in ThinkIns boosts reader retention, Moseley said: “We know that once you’ve been to a ThinkIn, your propensity to renew your membership is dramatically increased.”

Engagement on newsletters and audio

Apart from tickets to the ThinkIn events, Tortoise’s members also get a daily newsletter, access to the members-only app, and an early access to the publication’s audio products.

The newsletter, called Sensemaker, has a very specific role within Tortoise’s product portfolio: “Sensemaker is as close to fast news, if you like, as we get,” Moseley said. Every morning the newsletter team chooses a topic for the day’s edition and puts together a brief explaining why the story matters and what its consequences will be.

While many publishers see their newsletters as a crucial part of their engagement strategy, Tortoise has a somewhat different vision for its daily newsletter.

“We know that for us, the thing that makes a member feel satisfied, that makes them recommend Tortoise to other people, and makes them renew, is the feeling of belonging,” Moseley said. “And the Sensemaker newsletter isn’t the thing that generates that feeling of belonging. It’s important for a lot of members as part of our service, but it’s not the thing that’s going to precipitate the behaviour that we want.”

As for its mobile app, it initially had a crucial role in Tortoise’s strategy, but since then the app has become a much less important touchpoint, especially compared to the audio products.

“What we found is that our journalism, our slow, narrative-led stories, is a formula that lives better in audio than on a small screen as a long-read. It’s kind of obvious now I say it, but it took us a long time to realise that was going be the case.”

Tortoise mainly uses three audio formats:

The Slow Newscast, a weekly investigation of “the stories that really matter.” Members can listen to the Slow Newscast on Mondays, with a free version (with adverts) being disseminated on podcast platforms on Thursdays.
The Sensemaker Daily, which looks at one story every day “to make sense of the world.”
Special investigations, which are published as multi-part series. The best-known example is the award-winning My Mother’s Murder by Paul Caruana Galizia about the killing of his mother, Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese investigative journalist who was murdered by a car bomb in 2017.

Commercial collaborations beyond advertising

Although Tortoise doesn’t display ads to its members, the publisher has other, “very big and important” forms of relationships with its commercial partners. These are built on two key elements.

First, Tortoise facilitates the convening of conversations among senior executives in private networks and forums. Moseley described this as “a kind of a private senior networking organisation”, which is also connected to Tortoise’s index business (the publisher maintains indexes on global AI capacity and corporate responsibility).

Second, Tortoise organises ThinkIn events with its commercial partners about issues that matter culturally to the organisation, such as race or gender inclusion.

“We’ve found that our ThinkIn model, the forum for civilised disagreement, is a really good way to engage both senior and junior people inside organisations, to make strides forward culturally.”

Moseley underlined that the corporate partnerships have an essential role in Tortoise’s business strategy: in fact, the revenue from partnerships exceeds the revenue from members. Moreover, these partnerships are helpful beyond the immediate revenue.

“The people that work in those companies quite often become Tortoise members too. And journalistically, we are learning much through the work we do with the partners. On climate change, on new technologies, on data and privacy, on the future of finance. These are all things that are journalistically very important to us.”

Online (and hybrid) events are here to stay

While some question how live events will return even after the pandemic subsides, Tortoise sees great value in bringing people together in the same space. For the publisher, physical events allow for much closer connections and engagement among the membership, and it currently plans to bring the live events back in September: “It’s very important for us that we get physical events happening again, for the purposes of bonding a community.”

At the same time, Tortoise has also trialled an event format that would include some audience members physically in the newsroom while others join online. The publisher is now developing its own technology and preparing its newsroom space for such hybrid events.

Letting online participants join can help with the goal of inclusion, according to Moseley.

“It’s very important for the diversity of the newsroom that we don’t go back to being in essentially a London bubble,” she said. “We will keep digital as an element in the mix. We can’t switch it off now, it would be too much of a loss for lots and lots of our new members.”

Tortoise is also looking keenly at new audio platforms, such as Twitter Spaces and Clubhouse, and it is experimenting with the opportunities they allow for engaging audiences. Moseley sees a lot of potential.

“Particularly when we want to quickly crowdsource an opinion on a live news story. You get on Twitter Spaces, and very quickly the room is full. You find you’re talking to people who have real insight without having to program or invite them.”

Read more about Tortoise’s ThinkIn format and its early crowdfunding success from our previous article “How slow news outlet Tortoise is taking audience engagement to the next level.”

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