Responsible news is how I refer to the group of organisations striving to un-bias news consumption in an age defined by political polarity and an apparent unwillingness to engage in constructive, structured dialogue with opposing parties. You’ve seen this too, everywhere from Twitter to the most high-profile news on the planet. To provide news in this way is irresponsible. Yet, in a political climate as turbulent as ours, adapting practice is hardly a priority for much of top-tier journalism.
It may come as a relief that there is a group of news organisations striving to simplify access to quality reporting, by aggregating that of our most reliable sources or by creating their own. These organisations value quality over quantity, in both quality news and quality time spent with their platform. In this piece, we focus on three organisations: Tortoise, Kinzen and Curio. Their subversion of traditional models makes our access to world-class reporting simpler than ever. Each could fit into our lives in a totally seamless way.
James Harding, the former Director of BBC News who co-founded Tortoise, coined the term ‘slow news’. It refers to an observation he has made lately in his decorated career: that the stories which took the longest to complete were consistently those that bore the most significant impact. “It was a lesson that said, actually, when you take the time, you can do journalism that is really valued and valuable – so that was the thinking [behind Tortoise Media],” he told Press Gazette.
First, we need to clarify that as Amol Rajan of the BBC correctly points out, “slow news has been around for years. It’s called the ‘Features’ section”. You know that, so you’re right to wonder why we need platforms like Tortoise: the labour of love belonging to Harding and Katie Venneck-Smith (former President of Wall Street Journal). Tortoise members contribute directly to the editorial process thanks to what Hardy calls a ‘system of organised listening’.
Tortoise’s ‘Daily Edition’ – the daily AM news bulletin – won’t be a digest of top stories of the day. Instead, it will go in depth on five – possibly under-reported – stories. Tortoise hosts a daily “ThinkIn” from 6:00pm-7:40pm, encouraging attendees not to just ask questions, but to share strong opinions. It is broadcast live.
To tackle the ‘echo chamber’ effect, Tortoise plans to eventually take its ThinkIns on the road to prisons, clubs and schools.
Tortoise will be “non-party-political” with “no proprietor” and no “subtle relationships with advertisers”. Harding wants to shift from the focus on “liberty and fairness” of news organisations of the past. “Dignity – the idea that everyone has a right to be recognised and respected”, is his priority.
All of this output will focus on five broad areas: technology, finance, natural resources, identity and longevity.
With 20 top staffers full-time already, Tortoise hopes to employ over 40 permanent staffers by mid-2019. 10 editors will get a budget to bring in contributors, and Tortoise’s staff team of reporters and researchers will handle a significant portion of the original journalism.
Tortoise has disavowed breaking news but will still aim to break the type of stories that will be covered elsewhere.
Tortoise’s business model is all about membership – a “high-quality, low volume” business. Harding “doesn’t believe in native content” and he doesn’t want Tortoise to “become an ad agency”.
Revenue is also driven by commercial partnerships with big institutions, for whom Tortoise will organise on-site ThinkIns, which resemble the TED Talks model. The aim is to strike up 8 to 10 such partnerships with industry leaders.
Tortoise is currently in beta phase – it’s unclear if a free trial version will be available once the platform launches properly. We don’t know when exactly that will be, but Tortoise’s offer of a discount for founding members ends on March 31st, implying a launch soon after.
To help outline the myriad merits of the platform, we spoke to Liz Moseley, Tortoise’s Members Editor. Consider this an outline of what the app aims to achieve, and how that distances it from the news pack.
Mathematics: Can you elaborate on what James means exactly when he refers to a “system of organised listening” – that is, how precisely users contribute to the editorial process?
Liz Moseley, Members Editor: When somebody joins Tortoise, they become a member of the newsroom, which means that they are active contributors to what we do.
My job, which I think is unique in news media, is a case in point. I’m an Editor, I’m in the daily conference, the long term planning conversations, and my sole focus is to act as the conduit between the members and the journalistic effort. So, I find people in the member base who can develop stories with us, and we gather their feedback.
At the moment the main channel in the product for this is the ThinkIn. We host them four times a week at the moment, usually (not always) in the newsroom itself. So members come in around 5pm, when we’re still at work, and we have a conversation. In the course of that conversation – sometimes on a predetermined topic, sometimes on the news of the day – we will form a point of view. Informed by what people say.
Frequently, members raise questions that warrant follow up journalistically, so we write pieces that come directly off the back of what’s been said. We use footage from the Thinkins within the stories, it’s important the members can see themselves in the process and the work itself. We use our members as fact checkers, and actually as our conscience too. One of the first features we built in the beta app was “WDyT” which stands for “what do you think”. We’ve been bowled over by the amount of and quality of input we’ve had. I’ve worked in media for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like it. Members are incredibly committed to it – they won’t let us rest on our laurels for a second.
Does Tortoise’s membership fee risk fostering coverage of stories that only affects a certain bracket of the population?
The full suite of pricing isn’t live yet. At the moment it’s £50 for three years for u30s, and the same if you get a gang together as join as a group of 10 or more. That’s pretty good value. We’ll be rolling our student pricing, pricing for social enterprises and so on as we build out. So we are being very deliberate about making sure Tortoise is accessible. The diversity of the member base is crucial to the success of the whole thing.
How will Tortoise strive to keep access to its services democratic?
Our home is in central London and it would be easy, or at least easier, for us to create an experience that is London-bound. Inviting people into the newsroom is one thing, but when we take Tortoise on the road and host ThinkIns in other places – even those that are still in London strangely – the conversations we have change.
For those people who can’t make it to us, we’re bringing the Tortoise to you. So, for example, we hosted a ThinkIn in a school that is particularly affected by knife crime. This week we did a ThinkIn in a church. We’re going to a care home in Norwich. We have events coming up in Oxford, Edinburgh, Manchester, Bristol. In the next couple of months we’re having ThinkIns in Amsterdam and New York. They’ll all be livestreamed.
The decision for a new company to host a conference (the ThinkIn) every day is a bold one. What measures will you take to keep this up in spite of how busy we can all be, or how tired after a hard day at work?
Strangely, we’re more worried about scaling it up than keeping it up. We want to be able to host ThinkIns wherever the members are. At the moment, demand is high and the quality is getting better all the time as we learn more about how to bring people into the conversation. When it comes to 5pm and we start to welcome people in (we’re all still working when the members arrive), it doesn’t feel like an effort, it’s exciting. Because it’s different every time. There’s a buzz about it.
Do you view Tortoise as a competitor to other, more established newsrooms, or as a complementary service? At the moment it is complementary. People will always want their breaking news and they can’t get that from us. Quite a lot of our founding members are self-professed news junkies. They’re building the Tortoise habit at the moment, and we are starting to hear that some of them are easing off some of their previous news sources now they’re enjoying Tortoise. But that’s not what the business model is based on. It’s not an instead, it’s an alternative.
Unlike Tortoise, Kinzen is a news aggregator, as opposed to a newsroom in its own right. Kinzen utilises machine learning to allow a user to take control of their news consumption routine. That’s what they see, when they see it, how much of it they see.
Kinzen hope to “make users empowered, giving you the ability to construct some form of filter and ranking system that reflects your intentions and not your instincts.”
Users can respond positively or negatively to news they’re provided with in Kinzen’s different topic channels. These are what’s analysed to present users with news they want. But you can also integrate your Twitter feed, where Kinzen’s algorithm will watch topics you follow.
However, it is still in the testing phase, so Little and his team are building a pre-launch community over the next two months, inviting people to test pre-release versions of the iOS app.
Kinzen currently has two long term goals, not outlined in detail as of yet: to reward valuable curators in the community, and to interest news organisations, presumably into partnership of some kind.
Kinzen launched in January on a £5 subscription basis. Before launch, they were seeking donations in exchange for six months of access to Kinzen’s subscription services after launch.
In order to better understand Kinzen on a conceptual level and situate it clearly in the responsible news landscape, we reached out to CEO and co-founder Mark Little.
What type of content are Kinzen actively looking for, and what publications are you looking to court?
Kinzen’s mission is to connect the active news seekers of the world with the sources who reward their trust and attention. In other words, to build a user experience of news worth paying for. Our perfect partner is a publisher who wants to build deeper personal engagement with members of the communities they serve.
How does Kinzen benefit publishers?
Kinzen is purpose-built for publishers who want to develop reader revenue products based on personalisation.
Our first product is a personal news app which offers users a highly curated experience of the open web. Initially, this drives traffic to publisher websites, and will soon become a sales pipeline for publishers offering subscription content. It will also help us perfect and refine Kinzen’s unique brand of ‘personalisation with a purpose’.
In parallel, Kinzen is developing a ‘white-label’ version of its user experience for partners. This technology solution will help publishers develop personalised newsletters and audio briefings, and can be eventually integrated into publisher apps and websites.
How can publishers monetise using Kinzen?
First, publishers can use the Kinzen app as a lead generation tool for their reader revenue products (without sacrificing revenue or user relationships). Second, publishers can use Kinzen technology to build new reader revenue products or enhance existing ones.
Do stories link directly to publishers à la Flipboard, or is all news viewed within the app?
All stories in the app link back to the publishers’ websites. All potential premium subscribers are directed to the publisher paywall/gate.
Technically speaking, how does a publisher get its content onto Kinzen? Do they provide an RSS feed, or is there more to it than that?
Kinzen’s data team can scrape, tag and organise content from any existing open website without any special relationship with the publishers. But RSS feeds will be core to any relationships based on reader revenue.
In an era when publishers are building loyalty and striving to retain valuable audiences of their own, why would you recommend a publisher work with Kinzen?
Kinzen’s founding team are old-school journalists who have worked for both traditional publishers and social platforms. We have a deep understanding of the problems facing publishers in a world dominated by big tech companies and aggregators. Kinzen doesn’t sell your ads, sell your content or ‘own’ your audience. We judge success by the value of the personal bond we help create between news seekers and publishers.
Users are encouraged to build their own channels, to explore what matters to them. How does Kinzen avoid turning each user’s experience into an echo chamber?
One of Kinzen’s founding goals is to help people see beyond the usual sources, and discover journalism they never knew existed.
We do not have an ad-funded business model. Our algorithms don’t need to fuel outrage and emotion. Kinzen does not track your browser history to keep you addicted to the same sources and opinions. We don’t rank news and information on the basis of what your social network is thinking.
Instead, we have a Discovery section in the app which surfaces expertly curated sources and channels and an Emerging Topics feature which engineers serendipity based on editorial choices rather than popularity. Explicit user feedback and conscious choices drive our recommender systems.
Curio stands out in the lineup as it’s audio-led. There isn’t quite the same amount of information about Curio available online as Tortoise and Kinzen, but their site tells us that Curio creates “Intelligent Audio For Busy People”. It offers thousands of high-quality audio stories from the best publications in the world, no annoying ads, offline listening, all hand-picked by editors and read to the listener by award-winning narrators. What we know for certain is Curio’s sources are among the planet’s most reliable, including the Guardian, The Financial Times, The Economist and The Washington Post.
Naturally, we wanted to be able to provide some concrete information explaining how the platform is of use to publishers. We were put in touch with Tainá Vilela, Curio’s Head of Brand, who helped make the service’s operations totally transparent.
How does Curio provide value for a user, from the perspective of the people working on it?
It’s easier to discover great timeless stories with Curio, stories are often buried under a large volume of information. We are passionate about choosing content that is relevant to our lives and what goes on in the world.
Our unrivalled collection of audio format stories, from some of the world’s most respected media outlets, gives people an opportunity to engage with great journalism on the go.
Does Curio view itself as a competitor to other ‘reading-led’ news apps such as Kinzen and Tortoise, or a complementary service?
Audio versus reading is not an “either or”. There are parts of our regular daily lives when screens are not ideal or easily accessible, like when we are commuting, cooking, performing chores around the house or before going to bed. That is when audio shines.
Who are your ‘award winning narrators’ and how are they selected?
Several of them are Audie Award winners who have worked for brands like National Geographic, BBC, Disney and others. They are trained actors and performers who are able to bring empathy, gravitas and life into any story.
Is an emphasis placed on individual publications within the app, or on your own curated playlists? In other words, are users encouraged to prioritise one over the other?
We help listeners find stories they love and publications to reach new audiences, increase engagement and create a new stream of revenue.
We uncover great ideas, well crafted pieces which can instigate interesting debate and personal growth. Good quality comes from established outlets like The Guardian, which was founded almost 200 years ago or AEON, a magazine around philosophy and culture which launched in 2012 and is still pretty much under the radar.
How will Curio ingest and consider user feedback?
At Curio we are always listening. Our listeners are more than just “users” to us, they are stakeholders who trust us to provide them with the best content out there. Their feedback has a daily impact on our product, so we make sure to listen, learn and work on becoming better.
Elsewhere in Responsible News
In 2013, Jessica Lessin founded The Information: a subscription-based digital news organisation which Tortoise seemingly owes a lot to. The Information shares only a small handful of news stories per day. It earns 90% of its revenue from subscriptions, and an estimated 10,000 subscribers pay $399 per year for the service. It has been profitable for over two years.
The 900,000-subscribers team at The Financial Times are interested in The Information’s strategy. They have reportedly discussed ways they could help to accelerate growth.
Agate, is another startup that allows users to pay for individual articles as they go. It’s a digital wallet for which publishers can set their own pricing on a story-by-story basis. Agate aims to make it easier to consume premium content without blockage from an unaffordable paywall. But, in a crowded market of micropayment startups, they have a tough job ahead of them.
Spaceship Media isn’t a platform, rather a form of consultancy that helps news organisations remain unbiased. They do this using ‘dialogue journalism’ – a process developed by founders Eve Pearman and Jeremy Hay – to “[go] to the heart of social and political fractures” and “[build] journalism-supported conversations between regular people about the issues of deep consequence to all us”. Their belief is that establishing a journalism-supported dialogue between communities in conflict helps solve that conflict. In their words:
“We work with media organizations and others on several different levels. We design and manage engagement conversations from the ground up; we provide design and ongoing consulting support; we provide consulting around our engagement values and methodology and project visioning.”
Vigilant won the 2018 Startups for News contest at the General Editors Network conference. The platform offers ‘real time search and monitoring across thousands of public data sources’. This makes it easier for journalists to locate stories and angles.
In some ways, it’s a dark time for news journalism. You’re reading this because you know that the boundaries between truthful reporting and spin are blurrier than ever. Luckily, there is a vanguard of organisations whose functionality helps identify news brimming with bias. The purpose of this piece is not to depict one service in a more favourable light than another; we merely want to help you consume responsible news, and ensure your own journalistic output is consumed responsibly.