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Have fun and make history

Have fun and make history

With the FBI investigating Trump, a leadership election in the Conservative Party and tension in the Taiwan Strait, it’s safe to say there’s a lot going on in the news this August. This week the Tortoise newsroom has some news of its own too


Anyone who has worked in a newsroom for even one summer knows there’s always news in August.  This year, more than ever: the FBI are investigating the former President of the United States; there’s an election underway for the next UK prime minister; an economic crisis in people’s pockets unfolding in real time; Russia is toying with nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine; China has been war-gaming off the coast of Taiwan. And, I’d suggest, another creeping step in the crisis for democracy, just as climate’s challenge to capitalism, Putin’s attack on post-Cold War security and Covid’s spanner in the works of globalisation, all contribute to decade that’s feeling less and less like the roaring 20s, more like a reckoning.

But let’s come to that in a minute. I’m James Harding, I’m the editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and this August, we’ve also had news closer to home – in our newsroom. Katie Vanneck-Smith, the CEO and co-founder of Tortoise, gathered us together on Tuesday to tell us she’d decided to leave at the end of the year.  

If you are a Tortoise member and you listen to our podcasts or you join us at our ThinkIns or come to the Kite Festival or you turn to the Sensemaker every day to try and understand the world, you perhaps know what we do, maybe not was much who we are, so I want to try and explain what it’s meant to us to have Katie help build our newsroom.  To be led by someone who is so driven to see the business succeed, but cares more about what we’re for than what we’re worth. To have an enterprising partner in growing a business for whom the finances never come at the expense of the independence or integrity of the editorial, but in service of more and better journalism. 

For more than four years now, Katie and I – and our fellow co-founder, Matthew Barzun, our chairman – have worked together turning an idea into a business.  We have genuinely loved it, both the wins and the hard yards. And, if you’re listening to this and you are a Tortoise member, you’ll know there’s no point soft-soaping it: her decision to leave is a huge loss.

To many of us though, it didn’t come as a surprise.  When Katie left her very grand job at Dow Jones in New York in 2018 to join us, she said she was up for launching the business and planned to stay for five years or so.  Having seen us through the start-up phase and a successful fund-raise that closed at the beginning of the year, she decided that, as she headed into 2023, it was time for a change. 

From the start, Katie wanted Tortoise to be something new.  Other newsrooms had projects with codenames and meetings behind closed doors; ours would be open.  Other newsrooms prided themselves on being feared; we’d be welcoming.  When we worried that simply by being in London, our ThinkIns would be an echo chamber for similar voices, Katie built a network of community organisations and sent our ThinkIns out on the road. If the ThinkIn was to be a place of organised listening, if Tortoise was to be a newsroom where our members make the news, then we had to go out of our way to hear from people going unheard. And even more so inside the company: she looks out for people and brings them in. She works – and, come to think of it, works all of us – to her simple mantra: “have fun and make history”. 

From the day Katie joined, we have sat opposite each other, our desks wedged together in the middle of the newsroom.  As you may know, journalists can be tricky – a winning combination of overconfident and oversensitive, stubborn and flighty, stuck in our ways and much too hasty, stoutly opinionated and always questioning.  All of which is a wordy way of me saying to her: thank you for working with me. On her desk, where others might have a name badge, she has a sign that’s much more pithy: “Do epic shit!”.  Well, we’ll do our best. 

And, to look beyond the news in our newsroom, here’s why. 

When we started Tortoise, we wanted to build a newsroom that was different, deliberately.  One that took a little more time to come to a better understanding in the belief that the truth can mend things.  In that spirit, we have been working for three years now on a project called “The Rules” – an attempt to address the hodge podge of political habits and historical precedents that pass for Britain’s political system and help explain the power gap in our democracy. The opaque and farcical terms of the election of the next Prime Minister by members of the Conservative Party is just another example of why Britain’s political system is in need of an overhaul. Without it, public confidence – even interest – in democracy is surely just going to keep ebbing away. 

Understandably, given what else is happening this week, Kenya went to the polls almost unnoticed by the wider world.  As I sit here recording this on Friday 12th August – three days after voting closed – we don’t know whether Raila Odinga or William Ruto has won.  What we do know is how few people voted: we don’t know yet the full number of ballots cast, but as the polls closed the latest number was 56 per cent of Kenyans voted, by comparison with 78 per cent in 2017.  That number, surely, is going to rise to north of 60 per cent. But still, young people, in particular, have opted not to vote.  There’s a signal here and one that should frighten us all – not more extremism in democracy, but a disillusioned apathy. 

August 2022 is prompting many people to wonder if we’re going backwards.  In fact, to ask if the 2020s are a return to the 1970s. You can see why: inflation rampant, an energy crisis, Cold War echoes and the civil rights battles of 50 years ago fought out again in American politics.  But thinking that history is repeating itself is to underestimate what lies ahead: the climate crisis challenge to capitalism; technology’s threat to democracy; the economic superpowers not just at odds with each other, but riven internally – China’s slowdown, as the Communist Party surrenders growth for control; US instability, as it succumbs to its own political risk; the possibility of another pandemic hovering ahead of us.  For a slow newsroom, there’s a lot of epic work to do.