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What we are for

What we are for

Tortoise, as you might imagine, is excited about the road ahead. We are a product of our times – and a response to it

Two and a half thousand years ago Aesop, who wrote fables, lots of them, wrote a solid gold hit. A tortoise challenged a hare to a race. The hare laughed; everyone did. When the race started, the hare took off at breakneck speed. Things were a blur. The hare decided to go for a lie down. The tortoise went slowly and didn’t stop. She was underestimated and relentless. And she won.

The fable, like all stories worth telling, has lasted because it contains a simple truth. The little, slow, methodical creature had a different approach. An unexpected but tremendously effective one.

Which brings us to this Tortoise.

We’re excited about the road ahead, but we think there’s a different way to run the race. We set out in a spirit of radical optimism, an optimism that’s inherent in our name. We’ve chosen it because it’s memorable, visual, durable. And apt.

We see a world of accelerating machines and markets, where the consumer counts but society suffers, where the gap between power and the people widens, where overall prosperity fails to deliver personal dignity. We believe that the coming age of artificial intelligence requires a moral intelligence – and so, as innovation permeates our lives, we stand for the human interest.

We are happy to be at odds with the conventional wisdom. We’re not party political and never will be. We’re not trying to fit into a political tradition.

We believe that things need to change. The power gap is widening. The powerful are fewer in number, more remote and less accountable. The political party, as much as the media, is unpopular and factional. Capitalism measures its success in financial results, not social outcomes. Technology, climate change and ageing are rewriting the rules of our lives, apparently unchecked. People are locked out of the decisions that govern their lives; leadership’s gone AWOL; democracy is weakening. If we can agree on anything, it’s that our times require new thinking.

We hope that if we take a little longer and open up the process of journalism, we can better understand these problems and foster new ideas. We’re trying to come to a better informed point of view on our future. In that sense, we’re journalism as jury, with a hell of a caseload.

We want to consider the economy as something that sits in our culture, not the other way round. We’re as interested in the arts as the banks. We’re not surrendering to the modern monopolies. We’re eager to disentangle business from finance. We’d really like to know the last word on the diet. We’re delighted that in some countries it’s easier than ever to love who you want; acutely aware that in others it’s not. We’re ready to fight the next wave of battles for civil rights. We reckon that understanding the brain is the new frontier in human science. We’re intrigued by fuel cells. We’re optimistic that we can halt and, perhaps, even reverse climate change. We fear the world is complacent about nuclear weapons. We’d be reassured if we knew what kind of aid works. We welcome immigrants, we know there’s more migration coming and we want to work out how best to handle it. We wonder what gambling does that’s good. We’re puzzled that tobacco is legal but drugs are not. We’re concerned to know what welfare and immigration services are doing to families. We’d like to figure out a way of making life-long learning a reality.

We think the old schools of thought are being swept away. When the industrial revolution began, the arguments were between land and money, church and state, crown and parliament. In a matter of decades, those political battlegrounds were abandoned for new ones. In their place, a politics emerged of left and right, a new argument between the champions of the state and the market, both looking to marshal industrial age economics in the best interests of the people. The old didn’t see the new coming, and it’s happening again. We are stuck in an obsolete politics, forged by the factories of the 19th century.

Today, we are again meeting new problems with old ideas. As we keep moving faster forwards, our politics keeps reaching backwards: nationalism divides us, at home and abroad; socialism overpromises and under-delivers; populism has one-liners, but none of the answers; and liberalism is complicit in the inequality, disruption and neglect. Our argument is with socialism and nationalism, conservatism and liberalism, alike.

If socialism came unstuck in 1989, liberalism ran aground in 2016. This is not for the obvious reasons of complacency; it’s not simply because the media and the progressive middle ground should be written off as an out-of-touch elite. (Where that’s true, it’s fixable.) The more testing question is why are liberal ideas, which have improved life expectancy, literacy and per capita income for billions of people, being rejected at the ballot box? It is because the liberal prescription is not up to the challenges we face.

Liberalism is not going to deal with technology, because it shies from interventions that might inhibit free expression and dent wealth creation. Liberalism will wait for the market to answer the problems of an ageing society, but we need colossal government-led innovation in education, healthcare and housing. Liberalism has championed globalisation but, from climate change to immigration, failed to establish rules to manage an interdependent planet. Liberalism has been captured by free market economics, which, in turn, has been distorted by finance. And liberalism muddles through in the culture wars, unclear how to strike a balance between institutions and the individual, between society and identity. The battle for freedom and fairness is not won. But nor is it sufficient. As much as we reboot the old ideas – liberalism 2.0 etc – they are not going to help us live well in our age of rapidly advancing change.

We are, let’s face it, a tiny journalism start-up. We’ve only recently moved out of my kitchen. We know that if we are grandiose, utopian or worthy, we’re done for. We don’t have a manifesto. We’re not running for office; we’ve only just rented one.

There was once a story about a group of diplomats who were asked what they wanted for Christmas: one said “world peace”, another “freedom of the proletariat”, the third “a box of crystallised fruit”. Well, we’d like to tell some stories. Stories are our business: our crystallised fruit. We aim to tell original ones well, to report them deeply and discuss them openly. If we had to choose, we’d rather have a porpoise than a purpose: it would keep us from that dread sin of journalists: self-regard.

But we’ve also knocked about long enough to know that journalism is not neutral. Every newsroom is motivated by what it’s against: injustice and violence, cruelty and indifference. The good ones know what they’re for: free trade, say, or public service, hip-hop or class politics. They are a lens on the world, reflected in their choices and voices. There’s no point being faux naive, pretending that we have no assumptions, no agenda. We do.

When you stand back, you can see the shape of what’s happening. There are five forces that are changing our lives and driving the news. Together, they threaten an assault on dignity.
– Technology is disrupting our work, relationships and politics
– Longevity is making a mockery of how we learn, how we age and die, where we live
– Finance has redefined capitalism; in some ways amplifying progress, in others accelerating inequality and distorting business
– Identity has liberated us but also set new dividing lines, polarised people, hollowed out the sense of what we share
– Natural resources can furnish progress but climate change is ripping up our geography, where people live and how

How do we come to a judgement as we investigate these forces at work? We’ll assess two things. The first is their impact on dignity. The first sentence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1 asserts: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” And yet for the past few hundred years, our politicians have largely left dignity to the clergy. It’s proved too woolly an idea, too philosophical or biblical a concept to pursue in politics. We all prize liberty and equality, as we should. But it feels as though something is missing. Dignity is that something, and if people pause long enough to consider this seriously, it requires a set of changes: a new articulation of the elements of the human experience that we prize, and a redrawing of the metrics by which we measure success.

Second, we’ll ask if leaders are doing their jobs. We believe that expecting more of people in power gives more power to the people. This requires more than accountability and transparency. It demands an interest in outcomes, a set of expectations of organisations and citizens. We believe in responsibility.

This applies to the news, too, so we’ll fess up when we don’t know. It’s the first step to finding out. (On that front, let’s start as we mean to carry on: we actually know next to nothing about Aesop. He was a slave who seduced his owner’s wife, or he may have been a burglar who leapt to his death from a cliff in Delphi. Or both. He lived 500 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Or thereabouts. He was African, or perhaps Greek. He was a mythologist rather than a moralist, but would rather have been seen as a humorist. He was notoriously ugly, but then again, maybe he wasn’t. Some facts are too good to check, others lost in time. We don’t know much for certain. We don’t know exactly when he lived, who he was, or even whether he was the author of Aesop’s fables. What we do know is that the stories attributed to him have informed what it means to be human for more than two millennia. They’re an ethical shorthand older than many of the world’s religions. They reach across political divides and around the world.)

We start at a time when plenty of people say journalism is broken. Many people ask whether newsrooms could have done more to foresee the three biggest stories of the past decade: the financial crisis, Silicon Valley’s disruption of everything and the rise of populism.

Of course, we’re reporters, not astrologers. Prediction is not our business. But the news media, like everyone else, has been hollowed out by the internet. We produce more news than ever before; more and more, faster and faster; junk news. It’s become noise. Precisely when we need to hear more, we often want to switch off. And so, in the battle for attention, the news media has sought refuge in telling people things they want to know. Instead of connecting with new audiences, news organisations have been bonding with their bases.

Tortoise is not setting out to fix the news. We’re green, but we’re not that green. We’re also not chasing after what just happened. We don’t send people to press conferences, race to cover natural disasters or try to win at breaking news. We are not like other newsrooms. We are not ranks of reporters, each assigned to their own beats. We are not limiting our journalism to journalists. We are not organised by the institutions, industries, political parties and geography of the world as it is. We are not your only source of information. We are not trying to tell you what you already know. We are not presuming to know who you are or what’s important to you. We are not measured by volume. We don’t count success by the number of stories, nor the number of words.

Social media has given people a voice to comment on the media. But, in truth, journalism has struggled with the deluge. Most news organisations relegate their customers’ views to comments at the bottom of an article – and rarely pay them attention. Others have opted for gimmicks, a screengrab of a tweet here or a YouTube clip there.

William Rees-Mogg, the former editor of The Times, once told me that the most important page in the paper is the letters page. It’s the one that carries the opinions of our readers. When I was editing the paper, I was fascinated by the leader page – aka the newspaper’s editorial page. It’s where we set out our values, where we argue out what we think.

We’re trying to imagine a new kind of newsroom that combines the openness of letters and the discipline of leaders. In the way that others have refashioned the lecture, we’re taking the central forum of discussion and decision-making in the newsroom and inviting in people from all walks of life. We want ours to be a newsroom that gives everyone a seat at the table; one that has the potential to be smarter than any other newsroom, because it harnesses the vast intelligence network that sits outside it; one that doesn’t just add to the cacophony of opinions but prioritises and distils information into a clear point of view.

A newspaper, as the saying goes, is an argument on the way to a deadline. By that definition, a newsroom is the place where that argument happens. And the leader conference is, if you like, the meeting when the argument is refereed, where the judgement is made. The discussion is wide-ranging, sometimes deliberately contrary, often very funny. It’s a forum for civilised disagreement. It is illuminated by principles and facts – and, frequently, it exposes not just what you know, but what you don’t. It prompts reporting, often the best investigations. And when the discussion is done, the editor’s job is to pull the points together. Sometimes the opinion is consensual. Other times it isn’t. But the argument that emerged from it should be concise and clear.

We want to take the editorial conference and develop it into a format for discussing the news that’s open to everyone. We’re calling it a ThinkIn. And we believe that if we can make it work we will be doing something that is original and distinctive; something that we can we can replicate and grow; something, more importantly, that adds up to a system of organised listening. That has to be the starting point for journalism at its best.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Now, anyone fancy a race?

What do you think? What resonates, what’s missing?
As a member, what does Tortoise mean to you? editor@tortoisemedia.com

Hare illustration by Sue Scullard