Struggling Tortoise Media Gets £50,000 Public Subsidy

The public via the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) has awarded £50,000 to Tortoise Media, the online publisher on a mission to slow down and open up journalism. It has opened up journalism by doing things like (Guido has counted them) hiring 13 people who studied at Oxford University.

The public’s money is funding live discussion events called “Think Ins”, in local newsrooms in Grimsby, Plymouth and East Marsh. Co-conspirators who have attended tell Guido they are like a liberal hand-wringing therapy session. The idea, they told NESTA in their funding application, was to “pave the way towards a sustainable future for local journalism, based on real-life conversations in communities”. How sustainable is the Tortoise model of journalism?

According to a Guido source on the inside, everyone knows it’s not working and James Harding runs it like a private fiefdom. The same source says they employ some 60 people* with a monthly wages-only bill in the hundreds of thousands. They now publish two pieces a day.

The source says

“Its whatever James Harding is interested in, and so he’s creating a magazine for himself. But his contacts and world view are so 2008. His speed dial political contact is Andrew Feldman. Him and Matthew d’Ancona are like visitors from another era. Of their claimed 26,000 members, 6,000 are people who were part of the Kickstarter campaign before they launched, 5,000 are student members, 14,000 are ‘network members’ which is a bulk buying scam where corporates buy cheap memberships for disadvantaged people who supposedly don’t have access to good media, and then they of course never log on. And 1,000 proper members, who actually read the site. Articles normally get reads measured in the hundreds, thousands is like hallelujah.”

Guido ran a comparison a few months ago which supporters said was unfair and not comparing like-with-like, so we have repeated the comparison with a like-for-like: Unherd, another not-for-profit online publisher that was also founded to do more highbrow journalism not covered so well elsewhere. Over the last 90 days this is how they have done in terms of reader visits, with only a handful of staff Unherd is beating Tortoise in readership terms by a factor of ten:

That chasm in reader numbers is not narrowing, the month of February was just as dire:

Two months ago co-founder Katie Vanneck-Smith told Guido Tortoise had 19,470 paying members, which if true would mean they visit the site on average less than once every two weeks. In reality much of their registered readership must live in the village of Potemkin…

*LinkedIn says they have 82 employees.

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