Tortoise Media: My Leadership-in-Action Project

From June to December 2021, I completed my Leadership in Action project with partner Tortoise Media.
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What is Tortoise Media?

Tortoise Media began as the biggest ever journalism start-up on kickstarter back in 2018. Founded by former BBC News Director and Editor of The Times, James Harding, alongside former President of the Wall Street Journal Katie Vanneck-Smith, Tortoise was born from a frustration with the direction of mainstream news. 

While Editor of The Times, Harding oversaw the tragedy of Grenfell and the shock of the Brexit vote. Despite thousands of people surely being aware of the flammable cladding, and 52% of British voters supporting an exit from the EU, no one in his newsroom saw either coming. Harding concluded that the modern 24-hour news cycle, with it's focus on breaking news and churning out headlines, is preventing journalists from having an ear to the ground the way they used to. He felt that by stepping back and slowing down - pursuing 'slow news' instead of breaking news - journalists could get to heart of what is 'driving the news'. 

With this aim, Harding and Vanneck-Smith established a slow and open newsroom called Tortoise Media. Since opening in 2019, Tortoise has grown their newsroom membership to over 130,000 members. Every day, Tortoise holds open editorial meetings where these members, along with editors and experts, share their perspective on a given topic (recent topics include 'Is Bitcoin a good investment?' and 'Food crisis: can the UK feed itself?'). People from all sides of the debate spend an hour sharing their views (in a fashion Tortoise describes as 'Civil Disagreement') and Tortoise editors use the discussion as a jumping point for their journalism. These meetings are aimed at bringing in perspectives and points of view that closed editorial meetings - i.e. those open to only editors and journalists - may have missed. 

The best way to understand the open editorial model is to see it in action. The Tortoise podcast 'Son of Afghanistan' was conceived when Rohullah Yakobi, a Tortoise member, attended a discussion on Afghanistan. During the conversation, he told his story of being tortured by the Taliban as a child and forced to flee his home of Afghanistan to come to England. What began as a few minutes at a Tortoise event, became an hour-long podcast telling Roh's story.

The aim of the Tortoise model is to bring anyone and everyone into the newsroom to have their stories heard by the media, and give journalists the time they need to dive into those stories.

My role at Tortoise Media

The Community Network

I was brought into Tortoise Media to work on their community network initiative. The Tortoise Community Network was established to extend complimentary Tortoise memberships to those whose voices are unheard and underrepresented in the media. The ultimate aim is that for each paid Tortoise membership, we would have one Community Network membership (or a 50/50 split of paid and complimentary memberships in the Tortoise newsroom). 

Over my 6 weeks on the Community Network, I partnered with a total of 10 charities, providing them with complimentary Tortoise memberships to offer anyone in their organisation. The highlight of my time on the Community Network was when I invited 4 members of the youth homelessness charity CentrePoint to one of our daily meetings. Two staff members described to us how they have seen a massive increase in demand for their services since the beginning of the pandemic, and two young people told us their stories of how they came to require CentrePoint's support and detailed to us how devastating the end of the £20 Universal Credit uplift would be. 

The Tortoise Students Programme

At the end of my initial 6-week Leadership-in-Action project, I moved into the role of leading the Tortoise Student Programme. Each year, Tortoise opens applications to their Student Ambassador Programme, to grow their student membership and bring student voices into the newsroom. We brought on a new cohort of ambassadors for the 2021/22 academic year and worked with them to extend free memberships to students on their campus and increase student attendance at Tortoise editorial meetings. We also organised opportunities for our ambassadors to attend workshops and career talks with Tortoise editors and journalists, and for London-based ambassadors, we enjoyed bringing them in to meet editors in person and contribute regularly at editorial meetings.

Tortoise at Cop26

During the first two weeks in November 2021, Cop26 came to Glasgow. Tortoise partnered with The New York Times to run a programme of events throughout the fortnight, based at the NYT Climate Hub. When the previous project manager left in September - 2 months before the events were to take place - I was asked to step in to oversee the project for the final run up. I worked alongside another member of the team to coordinate Tortoise-side operations and communicate with the team at The New York Times. I developed a wide range of skills as I worked across all teams at Tortoise, from establishing editorial plans, to solving logistical problems, to developing marketing plans and hitting ticketing targets. This was a massive step up in responsibility, giving me a great chance to rise to the challenge and gain invaluable experience. I was lucky that, as part of the Tortoise Cop team, I was then able to spend 11 days in Glasgow during the conference. When I wasn’t working operations at the Tortoise events, I had the opportunity to join the protests and attend Cop events. Working with the team on Cop26 and then getting to attend what will hopefully prove to be a historic climate conference is an experience I’ll never forget.

Reflection

After 6 months at Tortoise, I can say I was given the space and the support to grow and develop in many ways. From being encouraged to voice my opinion and advocate for the things that matter to me, to taking the lead on various partnerships and programmes, Tortoise truly allowed me to improve my leadership abilities. I believe this example of effective leadership will provide a model for me to follow in any future positions of leadership that I may occupy. 

 

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