Tortoise’s slow news approach has a fast-growing audience
Apple Podcasts recently sat down with Basia Cummings, the editor at Tortoise Media. Basia shared how the media company uses subscriptions to Tortoise+ on Apple Podcasts to build relationships with their audience and offer more content and perks to loyal listeners.
Apple Podcasts: Tell us what makes your podcast, The Slow Newscast, and other Tortoise podcasts stand out.
Basia: Tortoise is different from any other kind of newsroom in two important ways. First, as our name suggests, we take the news slowly. We investigate what’s driving the news, not breaking news. Second, our journalism is built for — and with — our members who join our newsroom to tell us what they care about.
As Tortoise grew, it became clear to us that, with all our investigative and storytelling expertise, podcasts were the best format for us. Becoming an audio-first publisher in 2020 allowed us to craft investigations, analyses, and daily shows in a way that stayed true to our slow and open values — while significantly growing our audience.
AP: What kind of shows do you make?
Basia: Today, our focus is very much on narrative storytelling, and we do this in different ways, in different podcasts, for very different audiences. The Slow Newscast is our award-winning flagship investigative show — one gripping story each week. Our daily shows, Sensemaker and Playmaker, take one story a day and make sense of the world of news and football. We also work on narrative series — long-term, ambitious stories over six to eight episodes. These have included Left to Die, My Mother’s Murder, Hidden Homicides, and the global hit Sweet Bobby.
AP: What made you decide to launch a subscription on Apple Podcasts?
Basia: Building a relationship with our audience — whether through a Tortoise membership, which brings people into our newsroom and informs our journalism, or through Apple Podcasts Subscriptions — is crucial to us at Tortoise as a business and as journalists. Helping our audience make sense of the world is what we do, and it became clear as we were publishing Sweet Bobby, our hit show about a catfishing scam, that we were building a large off-platform listenership. Subscriptions enabled us to bring those listeners closer to our newsroom and give them a richer listening experience.
AP: How do subscriptions fit into your overall business model?
Basia: Apple Podcasts Subscriptions is a natural extension of our success in audio. When our daily Sensemaker hit 7 million downloads and Sweet Bobby went viral toward the end of 2021, we realized that we had an increasingly loyal audience that we wanted to grow. Subscription benefits mean we can give early access to our investigations, exclusive content where appropriate, and ad-free listening. It means we can offer more while staying true to our values — and we can remain an open, slow newsroom that our members truly feel part of.
AP: What information have you gathered from Apple Podcasts Subscriptions?
Basia: We’ve been delighted to discover how young our listeners are. We always knew that the average Tortoise member skewed far younger than the average person who paid for media: 39 compared to 55+. But one of the things we’re particularly proud of is that our average listener age is 29. In the world of news, that’s really important. Through our membership and our audio subscription, we’ve debunked the myth that younger people aren’t prepared to pay for news content.
AP: Where do you see Tortoise+ on Apple Podcasts in a year?
Basia: Membership is one of the key barometers of our success. As we grow our membership over the next year and beyond, we can bring more voices into our newsroom and fund more investigations. We have a brilliant slate for 2022, including stories and investigations from the Sweet Bobby team, The Slow Newscast team, and our political commentators, as well as new shows with some brilliant commentators and activists. And there’s a lot of exclusive and bonus content in the works.
AP: Tell us about an episode that you’re most proud of.
Basia: In June last year, a colleague told me that someone had messaged him about a terror attack in Mozambique. I remembered seeing it flitter across the headlines here in the UK, but I hadn’t followed it closely. A couple of weeks later, I sat down for an interview with two men, Nick and Wes, to learn more about what had happened. It was one of the most incredible, devastating interviews of my career, and became Left to Die, a three-part investigation into how a group of civilians was abandoned by the military, the government, and one of the biggest oil and gas companies in the world, and left to fight for their lives as Islamist militants besieged them.
It’s a series that shows why being slow really matters; how it allows you to get deeper into stories that are quickly forgotten in the quick cycle of breaking news. But most of all, it shows how important it is to really listen to people and hear their stories.
AP: What would you say to someone who’s trying to break into the industry?
Basia: The piece of advice I would give anyone, whatever they are trying to do: Take your time. At Tortoise, it took us a while to figure out what the right format and approach to The Slow Newscast should be. It took months to land on the right format for Sensemaker, which is now our biggest show. And by “taking time,” I mean allow yourself time to figure out who this show is for and what you want to say.
Also, never underestimate your sound designer. They are the magicians who transform the heavy, leaden script into gripping stories or unforgettable moments that’ll make you miss your bus stop.