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Monday 25 March 2019

part one

The joy of belonging

  • We humans instinctively want to belong, and we understand that being part of something makes people happy
  • Twenty years ago the media began to appreciate the importance of building up loyalty in their customers
  • Subscribers commit by buying; members belong by contributing. In creating Tortoise, we’ve drawn on the lessons from decades of news publishing in the UK

By Liz Moseley and Katie Vanneck-Smith

If 25 years of working in this industry has taught us anything it’s this: the business model of news needs a major rethink if journalism is to have a sustainable future. That model, we believe, is membership. Here’s why.

The urge to belong is a basic human instinct

To seek out and build nurturing, secure relationships with other people is a survival instinct. Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs puts “love/belonging” on the third tier, immediately above basic physiological needs (food, water, warmth) and safety. A school of thought in paleoanthropology suggests the reason we Homo sapiens managed to see off the stronger, more technologically advanced Neanderthals was because we had such a strong instinct to socialise, to belong together.

 

Fast forward several hundred thousand years to the social media age and the instinct is no less potent – although it has been rebranded (of course it has) “the search for connectedness”. The words matter here. “Connected” is a hallowed term in Silicon Valley because it’s both a neat metaphor for the pseudo-emotional benefit of “bringing people together online” as well as the underpinning commercial and technological infrastructure that sustains the whole ecosystem. But connectedness is to belonging what chitchat is to conversation. To feel you truly belong is to experience a deep-down feeling of well-being; a more primal, more visceral and frankly more joyful feeling than one of “connection”. Belonging requires active and authentic participation. Connection is fleeting, but belonging reverberates, it leaves an imprint beyond itself. Belonging lasts.

What’s all this got to do with media business models?

News media, like any industry, is susceptible to trends and obsessions. The lure of the new, especially in a sector that has spent so much of the last two decades – how shall we put it politely – in crisis, is strong. For all the breathless talk about AI and hyper-personalisation, it is subscriptions that is Hot Right Now in publishing. But subscriptions is far from a new idea.

 

Back in the late 90s, the idea of a profitable, growing, print-based newspaper business was still a thing in the UK. They were exciting times. Investment flowed into product, price and promotion. Extra sections, glossy covers and new formats were all the rage. This was when the role of the marketing department was mainly to source all manner of tat from Eastern Europe to attach to newspapers and magazines as “covermounts” – a tactic notoriously remembered as “the crack cocaine of publishing”. All this ignominious activity (and literally millions of pounds) was in pursuit of one thing – a higher daily circulation number, enshrined in the Audited Bureau of Circulation figures. Your ABC number secured your advertising story. It acted as a pseudo-guarantee of umpteen thousand precious eyeballs of an idealised, completely anonymous, relatively wealthy and ideally youthful readership.

Meanwhile, in the distinctly unglamorous headquarters of The Daily Telegraph, to little or no fanfare (in fact, to a fair amount of derision), a quiet revolution was happening. The Telegraph’s response to The Times’ 10p Mondays was to post hundreds of thousands of date-stamped vouchers in neat little perforated booklets (redeemable at “all good newsagents”) to their readers’ homes across the country.

The Telegraph’s loyal readers were rewarded with price reductions. If it seems counterintuitive, that’s because it is. The naysayers called the initiative regressive – discounting for volume was a dirty tactic akin to cover-mounting, only without the plastic waste. But the Telegraph had figured out how to lock in the loyalty of its core base of customers and also – and this was the big deal – to know them by name.

Convenience wars

In March 1999, almost five years before The Times ditched its broadsheet format in favour of going “compact”, Metro launched in London. The broadsheet editors took some convincing that Metro – an editorial product that blended horoscopes and popular culture with London, national and international news – was anything more than a distraction.

Designed to fit a daily commute, Metro was printed in full colour, easy to hold thanks to its tabloid format and – get this – absolutely free. The change didn’t happen straightaway but when sales of The Times at the key arterial rail-routes into London – not just at the stations but at retailers in towns like Aylesbury, Reading and Canterbury – fell off a cliff, the broadsheets had to take note.

The net effect was that Metro redefined the word “quality” in terms of newspaper consumption – putting accessibility and convenience level with editorial clout in customers’ value equation. Conversations inside publishers’ boardrooms turned to formats, both physical and digital, rather than – or at least as much as – journalism.

Another brick in the paywall

In 2005 Facebook arrived. Twitter came in March 2006, the same month that The Guardian – then the digital innovators in the space – launched its blog site, Comment is Free. Talk of the democratisation of journalism, of citizen journalism and “user generated content” focused effort and investment on digital creativity over business model innovation. Yet the revenue that publishers could generate from a thousand hits (as we used to call them) on a web page had been in sharp decline since the early Noughties – so while editors still chased audience, publishers needed cash.

It wasn’t until 2010 that The Times became the first major national daily to drop a paywall in front of all the articles it published online, which was as momentous as it sounds. An audacious move that reset the clock to the extent that a whole generation (over 40 per cent of Tortoise members are under 30) have been re-educated to understand that quality news doesn’t and shouldn’t come free.

Three years before the paywall, something else shifted that is crucial to our story: The Times launched its much copied Times+ reward scheme. Unlike the Telegraph’s earlier subscription model, Times+ put the emphasis on value added rather than price cut as both incentive and reward for high-frequency engagement. Among a host of other benefits, subscribers of The Times were invited to exclusive reader evenings to meet the editorial teams. The phone-hacking scandal was yet to emerge but The Times’s hugely popular meet-the-editor events quietly marked the very beginnings of a new covenant between the people who were writing the news and the people they were writing it for. In terms of trust and transparency as well as business model design, it was an inconspicuous but significant step.

Subscribers commit by buying. Members belong by contributing. In creating Tortoise, we’ve drawn on all the lessons of the last quarter of a century of news publishing in the UK. As Metro taught us, taking convenience seriously is a question of courtesy, as well as a hallmark of quality. So it matters that our digital edition is determinedly, ruthlessly convenient. Screen accessibility is a skill and science in itself, and we’re still refining colours, type sizes and load times.

Great journalism always will be our start and end point. Choosing just one from 5,000 possible stories each day is a rigorous editorial workout in itself. In Tortoise Quarterly we have the luxury and responsibility of more words to play with – but only four times a year, so every piece has to count.

But it is the open element of our promise that we believe will engender an authentic trust between our organisation and our members that is the key to a sustainable future. When you join Tortoise you’re taking a seat at the table in a real way. We have wired our journalism around our members, with the ThinkIn at the heart of the process. Everybody has an equal stake. We all share responsibility for what we do and the impact it can have.

Tortoise is about membership, not just subscriptions. Supporting us matters enormously. But being part of our adventure and taking part in it is much more important.

This is an article that appears in Tortoise Quarterly: A Short Book of Long Reads

Further reading

  • A Theory of Human Motivation by Abraham Maslow (Wilder Publications, 2013) was first published in 1943, with his famous “hierarchy of needs” model.
  • The Membership Economy by Robbie Kellman Baxter (McGraw-Hill Education, 2015) explains the strategic rationale and tactical know-how for how to build a “recurring revenue” commercial organisation.
  • The NMA (News Media Association) has compiled a history of British newspapers from William Caxton in 1476 to the present.
  • Post-Truth by Matthew d’Ancona (Ebury Press, 2017) is a blistering short read that puts the evolution of the relationship between news media and news consumers into a wider political and sociological context.

 

Illustrations by Marcos Henson for Tortoise