Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
9 mins read

Slow Journalism… the importance of explaining the news, not just breaking it

coffee cup outside

Time well spent. Less is more. Slow but steady wins the race. Digital wellness. Slow down, wise up.

Can these catchy taglines also work in the ad-driven world of digital media, where ‘being first’ still remains a top priority for many publishers? Despite the odds, a number of emerging ‘slow journalism’ startups are on a quest to find out.

Their alternative approach to reportage is essentially characterized by two trends. 

The first is the move by publishers to favor more digestible, manageable, and intelligible content. This isn’t unexpected considering that an increasing number of news consumers “are avoiding or feel worn out by the amount of news these days”, something highlighted in a small yet significant section about ‘broken news’ in the 2019 Reuters Institute Digital News Report

The second trend is that an increasing number of publishers are finding ways to tackle the issue of the perceived shortcomings of the mainstream media – an industry that is exceptionally good at breaking news, but disappoints when it comes to explaining its development.

So these predicaments beg the question: can slow journalism successfully serve as an antidote for news fatigue or news avoidance – and can such media startups capitalize on news consumers’ disenchantment, and produce an offer the readership is actually willing to pay for?

Are longform and digital truly incompatible, or is it all just a wash?

Almost a decade ago, it was a widely held belief that longform and digital were (or at least should be treated as) two separate entities. Then, the received wisdom was that readers – when reading anything digital – suffered with short attention spans, and the talk of journo town was that nobody wanted to read anything online that was longer than 250 words. 

Rob Orchard, at UK quarterly print magazine Delayed Gratification believes that this idea simply doesn’t wash. The idea, for example, that you can’t read longform online is really a UX issue, not a behavioral one: with the right design this is an obstacle easily overcome.

The real crux of the issue, however, is how coverage is approached in the first place. And, it’s just possible that by addressing this, you may – in part – solve a piece of the engagement puzzle also.

A goal with slow journalism is to use the benefit of hindsight to your advantage: to report on events after the dust has settled and the news agenda has moved on, and therefore present a story in its proper context with time to reflect more soberly on whatever’s happened. This is why it’s a point of pride that Delayed Gratification strives to be the last newsroom to break the news.

It’s not an idea in isolation, either. A dozen or so new publications and books are now following in these footsteps, eager to satisfy the rise of the dual consumer trends of demanding a slower kind of journalism and actively looking to filter out the news noise. 

It may pay to delay (aka the monetization question)

Of course, if quality journalism – longform in particular – is to survive (and thrive), it needs to generate revenue. Monetization strategies are a-plenty, be it print, subs, membership donations, native ads or loading free content with advertisements. 

But no monetization strategy will be able to bear fruit in the long run if publishers cannot produce content that readers trust. Indeed, trust is what is most likely to drive up loyalty – and then hopefully subscriptions with it too. Yet in order to do that, there needs to be an emotional component to news products. There needs to be a strong reason to connect. Without that, it’s like having a brand without a slogan. 

Last year, when we chatted about memberships, subscriptions, and engagement with Sebastian Essler from Steady, he was keen to point out that the selling point for readers is not ownership, but access, privilege, and passion. 

Some might say the ultimate perk is having access to all the news that’s ever been published on a website, but excess isn’t a good product.

The fundamental problem with subscriptions is that they are too often seen as a way to replicate the print model, where the idea of ownership was straightforward – cash, for a copy of the paper. Buying a digital article for 30 cents, or offering content under the guise of it being an extra feature isn’t a satisfactory substitute for many people. In fact, the very notion of a digital article doesn’t even exist in the minds of most consumers.

As tempting as they might seem on paper, the little perks just do not cut it. “You know, often we see publications selling these ‘extras’ as you’ll get an exclusive email every day,” explains Essler, “but I know that personally I don’t want to get any more emails. In fact, I’d happily pay to get fewer!”

Some might say the ultimate perk is having access to all the news that’s ever been published on a website, but excess isn’t a good product. What people appreciate is curation.

So is taking it slow the way to go? Does this approach successfully blur the line between updatedness and understanding – a filter that the audience is willing to pay for, now, more than ever? 

Two success stories: the rabbit may win the sprint, but the tortoise is likely to win the marathon

News is now delivered so fast, that the race is for the headline, with insufficient attention given to the mission to balance out the noise. For a publisher this is fraught. For the reader it’s a cacophony.

What makes curation – a key facet of the slow journalism ethos – so appealing to readers is that it gives them a realistic chance to thoroughly consume everything before more content arrives. That’s why members of British slow-news outlet Tortoise Media receive no more than five articles per day in its “slow newsfeed”. 

“Tortoise is the antidote to the endless news feed,” said co-founder and publisher, Katie Vanneck-Smith in an article for Nieman Lab about why slow journalism is quickly growing a following. “We promise [our readers] something that fits into their lives, something they can finish, that’s quality, thoughtful and that they can be a part of.”

On their Kickstarter campaign to grow their membership community, they emphasize that, “we don’t cover every story, but reveal a few. We take the time to see the fuller picture, to make sense of the forces shaping our future, to investigate what’s unseen,” which is an encouraging antidote to today’s fast-paced journalism. During their month-long campaign last fall, they raised nearly £540,000 (US $661,500) in addition to an undisclosed sum from a group of eight private investors, which, according to Vanneck-Smith, is enough runway to build a sustainable model for journalism over three years.

Today, Tortoise boasts 40 employees and over 5,000 founding members who can participate in providing input apart from receiving a paywalled daily digital edition via the Tortoise app as well as a quarterly print magazine sent via mail. The output focuses on five broad areas (tech, finance, natural resources, identity, and longevity) or as the company likes to say, “five forces that are changing our lives and driving the news.”

Although membership is the main source of income (£250 or $315 on a yearly basis), Tortoise’s business model relies on two additional revenue streams:

  • Data research or “Tortoise Intelligence”, a series of long-term, data-driven indexes that stem from the company’s collaboration with brands and partners.
  • Commercial partnerships, which include up to ten brands associated with all of Tortoise’s products and formats. 

“You can build a brilliant subscription or membership business with slow journalism at the heart of it,” said Vanneck-Smith, while citing British weekly publications like The Economist and The Week.

Ultimately, the quality and the impact of your journalism is what influences readership loyalty, a feat that mandates more time and research than mainstream media is typically able (some might say, willing) to give.

What happens when knowledge takes precedence over speed

The speed with which this next publishing digital newspaper delivers news is even slower than that of the Tortoise. On average, Copenhagen-based Zetland sends only two stories to their members’ inboxes per day, which gives their readers a realistic chance to complete all of its daily content. Also dubbed ‘the finishable feature,’ this approach curbs the urge to constantly check back to the Zetland website for new content. As is similarly the case with Tortoise, roughly 35 percent of Zetland’s subscribers state that the “manageable number of articles” is either the primary or one of the primary reasons for becoming a member.

“The main problem for people who are attracted to Zetland,” explains Lea Korsgaard, Zetland’s co-founder, “is the feeling of being bombarded with news and having trouble finding solid, in-depth journalism that’s worth their time.” Indeed, the endless scrolling through the newsfeed has the opposite effect of grabbing attention, further fuelling the readership’s need to disengage. 

But by limiting the amount of information, correcting misunderstandings that seem to be spreading, and shedding more light on ‘underreported trends’ or long-gone topics that once dominated the news, Zetland frees their readers from the stress they are otherwise likely to endure in a mainstream media environment. 

Although the company isn’t profitable yet, it already boasts approximately 10,000 subscribers, has raised an undisclosed “single-digit million dollar amount” since its launch in 2012, including more than $82,000 from a crowdfunding campaign. In fact, Jakob Moll, co-founder and CEO of Zetland, expects that the company will break even this year, which is an encouraging thought for newsrooms that are eager to undertake the similar approach.

The greatest challenge is that their Danish audience is six million strong, which, compared to the Tortoise’s market is substantially smaller. However, the Danish publisher has another string to its bow: Zetland pairs this curated approach with an engagement journalism methodology. Their editorial staff investigate, report and publish stories driven by member requests, as well as diversifying further through public live events. They have understood that diving deep into the issues, taking time to reflect and process also means involving their readership in this process. The result: fewer articles in greater depth, published for an audience they truly understand.

Zetland and Tortoise are far from the only ones sharing a spot in the slow journalism hall of fame. The demand for slow journalism is building up steam around the globe, especially in Europe. Other digital-only membership-based slow news publications that cater to their readers’ reading habits also include:

The latter, arguably the best-known slow journalism publication, raised $2,627,070 from almost 46,000 people last year in a crowdfunding campaign that vows to bring the “antidote to the daily news grind” to English-language readers with “at least one new story every day.”

As the number of people becoming aware and concerned about the negative effects of technology and social media consumption on our mental health, relationships and society continue to grow – so too may the number of potential paying members for slow journalism outlets.

Does the slow and steady approach really have the chance to win the marathon?

Whether or not slow journalism can overcome people’s persistent unwillingness to pay for any online news is still open for debate. Things like inaccuracy, bias, ‘fake news,’ and ‘alternative facts’ have led people to lose faith in the media altogether. For publishers to nurture a truly loyal and engaged audience, further contributing column inches to the breaking newsfeed isn’t the answer. Remember the adage? If nothing changes, nothing changes. It’s time – for some publishers at least – to try a different approach.

People’s responses to this more in-depth approach to reporting are encouraging. But more than that, if people can finish reading their daily news quota feeling like they have been adequately ‘briefed’, they are more likely to use the product – and those who do it regularly are more likely to pay for it. This is what gives outlets such as Tortoise, Zetland, and other publications a leg up on those competitors who prefer fighting for subscriptions with clickbait headlines, and ad revenue to make ends meet.

At first glance, all of these slow outlets attract and retain members differently. But if we look under a magnifying glass, these companies actually share some commonalities, including:

  • Manageable output
  • Quality journalism that makes sense to the readership
  • Audience engagement by involving them in the sourcing and editorial process
  • Focus on the membership business model
  • Success at crowdfunding campaigns

Perhaps the single most important question is how many of the millions who feel worn out by the amount of news can be convinced by slow news publications to start paying for this, alternative, version of it.

Slow journalism has long been a core component of our news landscape. Just as then, a slow news approach isn’t the solution to every breaking story. There will be times when a different approach is more appropriate. In print, the long-form, investigative feature occupied only a section of the paper, but digital offers up the possibility for entire news sites to be structured around the idea, and these emerging success stories are proving that the idea has legs. Indeed, as the volume of content continues to grow, consumers may be more likely to seek out these unhasty niche publications for a bit of respite from the incessant breaking news feed.

Time well spent, indeed.

by Marko Dorić

Republished with kind permission of Content Insights, the next generation content analytics solution that translates complex editorial data into actionable insights.