• Jason Nisse

Video skilled a seminar star

A long time ago I was given two pieces of advice.

1. Don’t attend a conference unless you are a speaker;

2. If you aren’t speaking, always ask a question.

In the days when we still went to debates in person, I tried to hold to those precepts. But in the last few weeks, as lockdown has removed the structure of our days, I have found that I’m enjoying joining video seminars a lot more than I thought I would.

I look forward to a semblance of external engagement. I’ve become used to the new way of operating – from debating what is going on in the chat box to electronically putting your hand up. And I’m not the only one – at a recent discussion hosted by media database providers Roxhill, moderator Michael Davies celebrated that fact that on video “many more can attend - and we’re not left with a mountain of uneaten croissants.”

The site that appears to have adapted best to this change is the self-styled purveyor of “slow news”, Tortoise Media. When it was launched last year by team led by former Times editor James Harding, I was a little sceptical about its business model, wondering if as so much news and comment is free, would people pay for a service focussed purely on analysis.

I attended a few of its ThinkIns – a type of open news meeting – where around 30 or 40 people crowded into the office in central London for an hour’s discussion on a pre-nominated subject, and enjoyed them. However, moving the ThinkIns online, via the ubiquitous Zoom, has turbocharged these discussions, both in quantify of people attending but also quality of debate.

It has helped that Tortioise has tempted some excellent speakers – Tony Blair, David Miliband and Paul Polman, the former CEO of Unilever – are among those in the last month.

The hour-long format, which seemed a little forced in the flesh, fits well into both people’s timetables and the capacity to carry a discussion. They follow the PR Barnum maxim: “Always leave them wanting more”. Like Just Eat’s founders reacting to not being able to order a pizza in Oslo, or Father Ted’s writers wondering what priests do all day, Tortoise has responded to events to find its metier.

The facts bear this on. The Tony Blair debate had 1700 attendees, the Paul Polman nearly 300.

Subscriptions are on the rise.

Tortoise seems to attract an affluent, left-leaning audience – the sort of metropolitan liberal elite so decried by Dominic Cummings. However, that leads to interesting questions about donut economics, technology emerging from the margins and why Africa appears to have avoided the worst of Covid-19.

I still wonder about the Tortoise name, but maybe like Carphone Warehouse we will soon be so used to it that we will forget how anachronistic it is.

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