The audio team at Tortoise Media was profitable within its first 12 months although the “slow news” start-up is still losing money overall, co-founder Katie Vanneck-Smith said.
Former Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones president Vanneck-Smith told the Publisher Podcast Summit in London on Wednesday that although Tortoise began life in 2019 by focusing on articles that could take 25 to 30 minutes to read, they realised “it wasn’t working” because people were only spending about four minutes with them on average.
At this time, the Tortoise membership had an average age of 39 and, when asked what they really wanted, they said “actually, I listen, I don’t read”.
The Tortoise team realised they were “missing a trick” and pivoted to focus on their audio journalism, which was already up-and-running with titles like Slow Newscast but £10m further investment arrived in January in part to expand this area. The audio team now has more than 12 full-time staff.
Press Gazette understands Tortoise has grown its podcast audience more than three-fold over the past year, with some of its new podcasts including Andrew Neila’s The Backstory, Caroline Criado Perez’s Visible Women and the Paul Caruana Galizia-hosted Londongrad.
The weekly Slow Newscast, which has had around three million listens since its launch, won the Growth and Innovation prize at Press Gazette’s Future of Media Awards last month, with the judges praising Tortoise’s “impressive growth since its pivot to audio last year”.
“The audio team within Tortoise was profitable within 12 months,” Vanneck-Smith (pictured) said. “Tortoise is not profitable currently because news doesn’t really pay its way.”
Podcasting is now the primary way that Tortoise distributes its investigative journalism, with the average age of listeners down to 29 which Vanneck-Smith said “means that actually we’re building a brilliant funnel for future members”.
Tortoise’s audio products have become the “single biggest acquisition funnel for our membership numbers,” Vanneck-Smith told the event run by Media Voices.
Tortoise, which was also co-founded by ex-Times editor James Harding and ex-US ambassador to the UK Matthew Barzun, has more than 50,000 paying members in total.
Its standard digital membership costs £100 per year and includes early, ad-free access to its podcasts, its Sensemaker newsletter, all its other long-form journalism in its app, and unlimited digital access to its newsroom “Thinkin” events.
‘Netflix moment’ membership spikes
The podcasts have two main ways of driving members: call outs by regular podcast hosts such as Basia Cummings of the weekly Slow Newscast asking listeners to subscribe – “if you love what you’re listening to and you want to support the newsroom…” – alongside the podcast show notes – “who reads them? But people do”.
These callouts do not create “big spikes” in members joining but are a “really good always-on acquisition funnel,” Vanneck-Smith said.
The other way is by creating a monthly “Netflix moment”, which Vanneck-Smith said is “like film premieres or big book releases”, by dropping a multi-part series for members but eking it out for non-members off-platform.
This means they might choose to subscribe so they can listen to the next episode of Alexi Mostrous’ new narrative podcast Hoaxed sooner, for example.
“The problem with that is it really spikes your membership number and your direct customers but… a small proportion of them stay with us,” Vanneck-Smith said.
“So you’ve got the sort of bottom-up always-on growing, and then you’ve got the sort of big spike drop-off, but you still grow over time. So kind of like anything, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
IP rights build on ‘blockbuster success’
As well as membership acquisition, the podcasts have several other ways of making money.
Tortoise has sold the rights of Sweet Bobby, the “blockbuster success” that won Podcast of the Year at the Future of Media Awards, to a “global major streaming platform” although Vanneck-Smith said she was not yet allowed to say who.
It has also just signed a first-look IP deal for the rights for all Tortoise content with a “major UK TV and film studio”, also as-yet unnamed.
It also makes money from advertising off-platform (it does not carry ads on its own site or app), co-production working with other producers, and its “studios” working with brands who need help creating their own podcasts.
Despite the success, Vanneck-Smith described the podcasting ecosystem as “a bit of a shitshow” at the moment and said she hoped someone comes in to disrupt and build a “platform that’s built for podcasting, rather than an adjunct to music listening”.
She added that podcast platforms like Apple “need to make it easier for consumers” to move around seamlessly so that members who, for example, sign up to Apple Podcast Subscriptions can then be automatically recognised in Tortoise’s own app as a paying member as well.
“Tortoise is petitioning Apple to make changes so the “podcast experience is linked to the app experience,” she said, adding that this would mean “suddenly you can connect all of the dots around your product portfolio”.
In general, though, Tortoise has a good relationship with the platforms, she said. Tortoise’s podcasts are distributed via Acast to every listening platform including Spotify, Google Podcasts and Amazon Music.
“I mean, the great thing about coming from a print and digital publishing background is that you know how you can get burned by working too closely with platforms so you’ve got a good ‘watch out’ playbook,” Vanneck-Smith said.
“But we do work very closely with the platforms and we play their game of giving them the heads up and having regular meetings and as a consequence they are very good at promoting our journalism content.”
As a result in part of this, as well as other discovery methods such as premiere listening for the podcast platforms and podcast reviewers and promoting shows within Tortoise’s own products, it is now the number two subscriber channel on Apple Podcasts after premium podcast network Wondery.
Vanneck-Smith said: “Wondery is a brand that has been built for the podcast ecosystem. Tortoise has pivoted, you know, a year and a half into our three and a bit year journey. I actually think that the interesting thing is you can actually, if you focus on it, really build a brand fit for audio, and you can get all of these platforms to support what you’re doing.”
Aside from the challenges of the infrastructure, Vanneck-Smith said the “hardest thing” in Tortoise’s pivot to podcasting had been the “war for talent”.
“The good thing is the BBC has pissed off most of their producers,” she said. “There are lots of BBC and ex-BBC producers who are excited to not work for the BBC.”
She said the nature of having a producer working closely with a journalist had proved “quite a different cultural way of working for journalists, to sort of have a buddy rather than be single-minded and do it by themselves”. The transition was helped, she said, by the fact Tortoise already had a former BBC Radio 4 Today editor, Ceri Thomas, on board since launch.
In the year to 31 December 2020, Tortoise Media recorded a total loss to date of £8.5m compared to a loss to date of £5.4m in 2019. It has not yet published its 2021 accounts.
Correction: This article originally said the Slow Newscast received around three million listens per month. In fact, it is three million in total in its lifespan so far.
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