Tortoise’s Katie Vanneck-Smith on podcasts, subscriptions, and the company’s growing intelligence division

Four years ago the founders of a shiny new startup, Tortoise Media, unveiled their innovative slow news-based platform. It chimed with a UK audience eager for a deeper understanding of a news agenda dominated by the fall-out from Brexit and the exploits of the US President Donald Trump.

Yet within two years the in-person events that were central to Tortoise’s offering had been curtailed as the global pandemic took hold. The exec team faced the challenge of restructuring their service at the trickiest of times and all the while trying to build a membership base.

Yet Spring 2022 finds Tortoise Media in rude health with a growing and active membership engaged by some of the most successful written and audio content in the UK.

The company is innovating in other areas too such as its Intelligence/Index division – so how has it managed to prosper?

Since its early days, the business side of Tortoise Media has been helmed by its Co-Founder and Publisher Katie Vanneck-Smith Publisher. An industry evergreen who has worked in commercial positions for many of the world’s top news media companies Katie is clearly relishing the opportunity to bring her years of experience to bear on an agile and fast-moving (in spite of the company’s name) startup.

Katie will be speaking at the 44th FIPP World Media Congress in June, and you can find out more here.

Here she details how the company turned the pandemic into a significant growth opportunity, gives the background to its highly successful audio content and offers a glimpse of where the business might go in the future.

Part of our: Meet the Speaker Series

Katie Vanneck-Smith, Tortoise Media

So for readers who are unfamiliar with Tortoise Media so far, what is the company’s story and in particular your role within it?

So I’m one of three co-founders. My other two co-founders are James Harding, formerly head of BBC News, and before that editor of The Times, and Matthew Barzun, who was Obama’s ambassador to the UK in his second term. 

Matthew is the chair. James is editor and co-founder and I’m publisher and co-founder. So I don’t do the journalism. I’m responsible for making sure that we don’t spend too much money and we make more money ultimately than we spend.

Off the back of the Trump victory and Brexit Matthew and James met and talked about how most major news organisations on both sides of the Atlantic had missed the rise of Trumpism and the  Brexit outcome. 

They felt that quite a lot of traditional newsrooms were missing some of the stories because they were running too fast. Also because the newsrooms weren’t open and weren’t organised in their listening. And they reflected too on the fact that most newsrooms were in major metropolitan centres whereas the outcome of Brexit and Trump was driven from elsewhere.

And so Tortoise was born. We are based around this idea that if we can build a newsroom for our members, we can create an organised system of listening and open up news conferences to really be better informed. 

I joined in the spring of 2018 from the Dow Jones. Soon after we got 2000 founding members of the back of the Kickstarter campaign. And then we launched on April Fool’s Day 2019.

So up till early 2020 Tortoise was majoring on in-person events like your open newsroom, but then along came the pandemic. How did it change the way you worked? You had to pivot very quickly.

The week before lockdown happened, we could all feel it coming. And so we stopped doing in-person in newsroom think-ins and news events and started delivering them via zoom. 

Being a startup meant that we could move much faster than many of the more traditional events businesses, so we were very lucky. We knew what the purpose of think-in was – open daily meetings. And in the same way that most companies had to pivot overnight to doing all their work from home. For us, part of our work is hosting daily news conferences with our members. 

[Lockdown] had the positive effect of making the newsrooms more inclusive, because you didn’t have to live within easy access of the central London newsroom to attend.

It had the positive effect of making the newsrooms more inclusive, because you didn’t have to live within easy access of the central London newsroom to attend. So we found we were joined by members from across the UK, but also other countries too. Secondly, it became easier to programme experts as you’re only asking people for an hour of their time rather than what ends up being three or four hours. 

Many of our members tell us that we were their lifeblood, we were their daily joy. At the same time every day, they could come and join a conversation. It was escapism from the four walls that many people were living in. So I think it did really, fundamentally change things.

Was there anything else that the pandemic changed in your business model?

The pandemic was also the catalyst for a tweak of our editorial direction in that we began to spend more time and energy on long listens rather than long reads.

The pandemic, whilst it wasn’t the reason we switched from long reading to long listening, accelerated the process in many ways. For when everyone was doing their one hour of daily exercise, by themselves, our long listens fitted in to the routines that people were developing

The average age of a news consumer in Britain is 56/57. While the average age of a Tortoise member is 39. So the move to more audio made a lot of sense.

Do you think too that the pandemic pushed Tortoise in a more populist direction?

I think you’re maybe a little bit skewed by the success of the Sweet Bobby podcast, which is a much more accessible, populist story because it’s a six-parter on catfishing. It did reach number one in both the UK and the US. 

But at the heart of that is still the sort of thing that Tortoise cares very much about. That is not true crime, rather justice is the way we think about that story. The fact that catfishing isn’t a crime and the fact that it’s not taken seriously when you go and report these things as a young woman to the police. The police forces are not necessarily set up to be able to deal with some of these new different ways of coercive control. 

In October of last year we opened a one-year inquiry, an ongoing set of think-ins and journalism, into the police. So we ran a policing inquiry and so yes, some of the stories may be more accessible and catering for a younger demographic. But the issues behind them are very serious and in keeping with our general philosophy.

Is there anything else you think the pandemic has changed permanently?

I think generally the speed of innovation that we saw in the last couple of years was positive and it’s a good reminder that we can move fast, and there are things we can do that can shake off some of the legacy. And let’s just hope we don’t always need a burning platform to change things.

Since Tortoise began in 2018 do you think there has been a sea-change in the way that people appear to be more ready to pay for digital content?

If you look at the Reuters Institute data it shows that only 7% of the population say that they’re prepared to pay for news and information. This has been very consistent over the years. 

I think what’s changed is the industry’s preparedness to ask people to pay for news and information. As other business models have run out of room the industry has embraced payment and paying for news and information as a primary area of focus. 

I think what’s really interesting is that more people are now prepared to pay for content. It’s really interesting when you look at the early data coming out from podcasting, that 21% of people who are regular podcast listeners are prepared to pay for shows and content that is particularly in their area. So what’s fascinating for me is it’s a very nascent industry in many ways. But already, you’ve got three times more people who enjoy listening to podcasts saying they’d be prepared to pay for it than for news. So I think that is exciting.

The industry’s likelihood to use subscriptions and memberships as a way to monetise content is growing. We are also beginning to see some innovations in local news

The industry’s likelihood to use subscriptions and memberships as a way to monetise content is growing. We are also beginning to see some innovations in local news. And I think that’s sort of helped by the weirdness of the fact that who knew in 2022 that everyone would be as excited about newsletters as they were in the year 2000?

You have developed a growing Intelligence division that caters for professional, business audiences. How important is that to your overall strategy?

So, basically we built Tortoise on the premise that it was a consumer proposition. What the indices and the data intelligence side of the business that are led by Alexandra Mousavizadeh allows us to do is really think about what our proposition could be for professionals. In other words b2b.

But the reality is that both sides, b2c and b2b, are building not just from a commercial perspective, but also a journalistic perspective. So those indexes that we’ve built, be it the Global AI index, or the Responsibility 100 index, are powering and fuelling vertical membership propositions. We have a global AI network that’s underpinned by the slowest form of journalism, which is an index, as well as monthly events. So it is based on the same model, it’s just a more high ticket membership. 

And are you looking at other indices in the future?

Yes. So basically, those two core ones are the Responsibility 100 and the Global AI index. The 100 also has a climate 100 index and we’ll be looking at launching a new index and data transfer around democracy soon. So there’s lots more to come. I think we’re also in the process of building a better food index, which will underpin a huge forum and network which will happen late spring.

How do you think Tortoise will develop in both the short and medium term? Is there going to be a role for AI in content production? Are you thinking about the metaverse? What about blockchain? Are any of those on your radar? Or is it too early for them?

So all of those things are on our radar, though, in terms of things that we should be helping our members understand. So journalistically, and from a think-in perspective, we cover them. They’re all topics and conversations that will stay very close because they matter to our members and therefore they matter to us. 

In terms of ‘will Tortoise be creating a Metaverse? Will I or James Harding, have an avatar and turn up in the metaverse anytime?’ not yet. The metaverse reminded me of when I was at the Telegraph in 2005 when I was the marketing director. The editor got obsessed with Second Life and we ended up building a world in Second Life. That was one of the more disco moments of my Telegraph career. 

So do we use AI? For me, these are all tools and the Tortoise proposition is about being human over anything else. So we have no ads or algorithms in our product. But we’re obsessed with understanding the technology and the impact it has on our lives, but I am not going to be creating an avatar of James just yet.

Are there any other innovations that you can talk about? 

In the short term expect significantly more audio storytelling and audio journalism. We are seeing great success in our podcasts and our audio journalism in other international markets. 

In the longer term we are mulling over what are the opportunities for membership growth outside of the UK. But for the short to medium term, we’re very much focused on the UK.

 ? To see the latest speaker line-up for this June’s FIPP World Media Congress, along with details of agenda and more, click here.


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