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“Some stories deserve and need time”: Slow journalism as an antidote to the “cacophony of white noise”

“Slow journalism” is nothing new. It has been the bedrock of publishing, and has existed in the form of cover stories and features section of magazines and newspapers. The Economist, Time, The Week, and the New Yorker are some well-known names that are reputed for their in-depth reporting that takes considerable time and effort to produce.

But in recent years, the term “slow journalism” has acquired fresh prominence with several new publishers like Tortoise, dedicated exclusively to slow journalism, setting up shop.

“Antidote to the endless news feed”

I think many of us feel overwhelmed by the variety of ways to get our news, and the velocity and the accelerated nature of the endless scroll and the alerts. It’s a cacophony of almost white noise.

Katie Vanneck-Smith, former President and Chief Customer Officer of Dow Jones and the Co-founder of slow journalism publisher Tortoise

The slow news movement is being fueled by reports that audiences are increasingly left exhausted by the continuous onslaught of news. Preliminary data from the upcoming 2019 Reuters Institute Digital News Report suggests that a substantial proportion of news consumers “feel worn out by the amount of news these days.” Similarly, a Pew survey last year had found that 7 in 10 Americans felt exhausted and worn out by the news.

Slow journalism can be a solution to this problem. Startups built around the concept promise audiences content that is finite and manageable, and designed to provide a sense of completion around important news events.

Katie Vanneck-Smith told Neiman Lab “[Tortoise] is the antidote to the endless news feed. We promise something that fits into their lives, something they can finish, that’s quality, thoughtful and that they can be part of.”

Tortoise was launched on January 14 this year with 2,530 founding members. It is in beta at present with plans to go live in April.

The driving forces behind the news

But just limiting the amount of content will obviously be not enough to get paying consumers. Slow journalism publishers aim to help their audiences develop a well-rounded understanding of the stories and ideas they chose to pursue.

Danish publisher Zetland, whose motto is “We prioritize knowledge over speed,” promises to tackle fake news by correcting misconceptions, highlighting underreported trends, as well as returning to important stories that dominated the news for a while before getting buried under the onslaught of breaking news.

Journalists’ job is to analyze and synthesize information that’s out there, not to move information from A to B as fast as possible.

Lea Korsgaard, Co-founder and Editor-in-chief of Zetland

Zetland costs 129 kroner (US $19.65) per month or 1,288 kroner (US $196.15) a year against which it provides readers with two in-depth stories on politics, society and/or culture on weekdays. This is supplemented with a newsletter featuring the day’s most important headlines and a podcast on the day’s most important story.

The publisher also has its own version of events called Zetland Live where it stages performed journalism. According to its founders, “Our performed journalism has brought us to the forefront of the international movement that explores journalism’s powerful force onstage and its ability to meet the current thirst for meaning outside our private filter bubbles.”

Here’s a brief overview of Zetland’s live events:

Unlike Zetland, Tortoise doesn’t have a monthly tier, its annual membership costs £250 ($314.82). The publisher offers members 5 stories every day focusing on five broad areas: technology, finance, natural resources, identity, and longevity. It will also have a quarterly print magazine that would carry thoughtfully reported pieces that investigate “the driving forces behind the news,” in the words of Vanneck-Smith, “some stories, some investigations, that deserve and need time.”

The publisher plans to actively engage its members by inviting them to participate in editorial conferences called “Thinkins” that would inform its daily news feed. The overall idea driving Tortoise is to help people feel less overwhelmed and more informed while helping them gain a well-rounded perspective on the big issues of our time.

“Big enough to accommodate a new entrant”

The question is can this movement survive in the highly competitive and addictive world of 24/7 news publishing? According to Zetland, which has approximately 10,000 subscribers and expects to break even this year, 35% of its subscribers say that the “manageable number of articles” is either the primary or one of the primary reasons they became a member.

We’re not trying to compete with the traditional news media. Slow journalism and fast journalism can co-exist peacefully. We hope to provoke and surprise readers, and offer perspectives on news stories they haven’t heard before.

Matthew Lee, Editor, Delayed Gratification, a quarterly magazine published in the United Kingdom by The Slow Journalism Company

Piet van Niekerk, Content Director at Content Cows—a London based content creation company, reported in a FIPP article last year that The Times UK abandoned the online breaking news cycle in 2016 and reverted to three digital deadline-driven editions a day. The publisher claimed that the move was a “wholesale success.”

“Within the first year of slowing down their digital news delivery pace, page views on their mobile app were up 300%, subscribers to the mobile app and website rose by 20%, users of the app grew by 30%, articles read per website visit jumped by 110%, and even the paper’s print edition circulation saw increased sales of 9.5%,” stated van Niekerk.

Everything I’ve learned over the past 20 years is that mixed models for funding journalism are better than relying on one revenue stream. Let’s be clear: in our traditional world of print, most of us didn’t just have one revenue stream, and it is amazing we thought one revenue stream would work in digital.

Katie Vanneck-Smith, Co-founder, Tortoise

Slow new publishers, just like regular publishers, are also exploring ways to diversify their revenues. Live events are an important part of both Tortoise and Zetland’s offerings. According to Vanneck-Smith, while membership fees will be the dominant source of income, they will also rely on data research and commercial partnerships for additional revenue.

Tortoise plans to come up with a series of long-term data-driven indexes in collaboration with “brands and partners.” Also in the offing are commercial partnerships with brands which would involve convening exclusive, on-site ThinkIns like the TED Talks model.

Amol Rajan, Media editor for the BBC, writing in his column for the publisher states, “It is also clear that there is big global demand for English-language journalism that takes a step back and surveys the big picture.

“And that live events can draw big, loyal crowds: witness Intelligence Squared, 5×15 Stories, and of course TED. But all this suggests that, rather than there being a gap in the market, there might just be a market – or rather markets, in slow news and live events – which are big enough to accommodate a new entrant.”

Download WNIP’s comprehensive new report—50 Ways to Make Media Pay—an essential read for publishers looking at the multiple revenue opportunities available, whether it’s to reach new audiences or double down on existing super-users. The report is free and can be downloaded here.

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