I’ve never worked with James Harding, but a friend who did said he was constantly restless, often rushing off when you wanted to speak to him, and it was a standing joke that the only way to get his attention was to harpoon him and reel in your catch.
So, it is ironic that the former editor of The Times and editorial director of the BBC is leading the new venture in slow journalism, Tortoise Media. At a presentation by him this morning – kindly run by media information company Roxhill – he set out the vision for the service.
I’m not going to go into detail but you get a daily email, a weekly “sensemaker”, longer reads (though he was vague about their frequency) and regular events called “ThinkIns” which are discussion on important issues led by people who know a bit about them.
I wish him and the team all the luck in the world but would raise the following reservations:
The service is quite expensive if you don’t utilise a group, team or under-30 discount, which if you work them properly can bring the cost down to around £50 a year. I can see a decent market at that price, but will it be economically viable in the long term? They’ve got some serious backers, so who am I to doubt?
I’m already swamped with daily emails from a host of sources, including about seven from the Financial Times. I’m also sent weekly round ups from many sources as well. Some I pay for – most are freely given in the hope of persuading me to sign up for a paid-for service (which I’m good at resisting). In this crowded market, Tortoise’s content is going to have to be exceptional for me to get out my credit card;
Long form journalism appeals to a certain demographic which I, as a middle-aged, middle-class reasonably well-educated person, fall into. However, I find it hard to read long articles on my phone or computer and I suspect much of this digital immigrant demographic might be like me. I also am offered some excellent long form journalism by some established media organisations some of which I read if I have the time. Again, the quality will have to be exceptional for me to pay Tortoise for this;
An audience member raised the very good question of how Tortoise reaches a non-metropolitan audience. James Harding said he was very keen to have events in market towns, but I can’t see the maths working here. Tortoise currently claims 7000 subscribers/members (I wasn’t too clear about the difference) and I’m sure would be very happy to secure 50,000, or one in 1000 of the UK population. This would equate to 130 subscribers in a substantial town like Ipswich, which you could stretch to maybe 250 if you include the local area. Is it worth holding an event in Ipswich when you are drafting from such a small pool? The danger is that the “ThinkIns” become talking shops for the metropolitan chattering classes;
I spent eleven years at The Independent, five when it was actually independent, six when it was owned by a larger media group. My experience is that independence, which Tortoise says is critical to its business model, can only be maintained if you are commercially successful and is always at threat if you try to diversity or break into new markets;
Finally, the brand. Tortoises are slow and take their time to do anything, but succeed (if you accept the fable of the Hare and the Tortoise). However, they are not known for their sharp intellects and, of course, hibernate for a large part of the year. I can see whey the name was chosen, but it doesn’t say to me dynamic or analytical.
That all said, there is a strong editorial team behind Tortoise and if anyone can make it work, they can. I wish them every success.