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30 January 2019updated 23 Jul 2021 1:52pm

The UnHerd Tortoise: are elite media start-ups just hype?

Drugstore Culture’s recent implosion exposes the challenge of boutique journalism ventures.

By Anoosh Chakelian

In the first episode of Channel 4’s media start-up parody Nathan Barley, the eponymous wannabe digital guru describes himself as a “self-facilitating media node”. It’s a ludicrous line, beloved of fans of the cult Noughties show, but in recent years many renowned British journalists and editors appear to have taken it as career advice.

The rise (and, in many cases, rapid fall) of boutique online start-ups by industry figures has become a trend – accompanied by overwrought coverage from their peers in the mainstream media.

Last July, Drugstore Culture, a culture and arts site and bimonthly print magazine, was launched by former Spectator editor Matthew d’Ancona and the businessman and film producer Charles Finch.

It was devised as “an antidote to the post-truth world” and “a challenge to the decline of thoughtful analysis of culture, society and politics”. It benefited from a breathless puff on Radio 4’s Today programme, edited by Sarah Sands, a former Evening Standard editor. But on 21 January, Drugstore Culture’s entire editorial staff, including d’Ancona, resigned after “instructions from management” to sack two female journalists. So much for thoughtful analysis.

Finch had also allegedly proposed a “one-man show for [his] friend Harvey Weinstein at the Royal Academy” and pressured the title to be editorially sympathetic to Brett Kavanaugh during last year’s US Supreme Court confirmation hearing. He insists that the site (which is presently offline) will continue.

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Before Drugstore Culture came UnHerd (or “unread”, as some have unkindly dubbed it). The comment website was announced in April 2017 by the former ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie. It was created for journalists to “dive deeply into their subject area”, boasting the tagline: “For readers who choose the important over the new.”

Despite UnHerd’s dubious mission to take the “new” out of news, Montgomerie’s venture was lauded by the establishment, with a full-page comment piece in George Osborne’s Evening Standard the day before its launch. (One of Montgomerie’s early UnHerd pieces was a defence of the former chancellor’s editorship.)

The site is funded by Paul Marshall, a pro-Brexit investor. He is the chairman of one of Europe’s biggest hedge-fund groups, Marshall Wace, and chair of the Ark chain of academy schools. It aspired to hire 15 full-time journalists and pays writers well, at £1 a word. But three of its directors have resigned since 2017, including Montgomerie himself, who left the site last September without explanation. According to its website, UnHerd employs seven staff.

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Among journalists, UnHerd is still known derisively as “the cow site” in reference to its esoteric logo. “Today I’m unveiling the icon,” Montgomerie wrote proudly in July 2017. “A cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behaves in unmissable ways as a result.” The post was later deleted.

Tortoise is the next similar venture to be launched: a self-styled “slow news” operation established by the former Times editor and BBC News director James Harding, and staffed by experienced journalists. It publishes a daily smartphone edition of five stories, allows readers into editorial meetings and will distribute a quarterly print magazine of “big reads”.

Lavishly publicised by the BBC’s media editor, Amol Rajan (who was hired under Harding), last October, Tortoise revealed it was using three years’ of financial backing from eight private investors in the hope of funding itself through a membership model in future.

Tortoise’s recent launch means it’s too early to pass judgement on its prospects. But why should long-form journalism be regarded as novel? Current affairs and literary magazines such as this one, the Guardian, the Financial Times and the London Review of Books, and digital start-ups suffering staff cuts such as BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post, publish reportage in abundance.

“The challenges that digital-born news organisations face are not so different from those that legacy ones face,” says Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. “If you go head-to-head with established media that has a long history, strong brand, lots of journalists and far greater audience reach, that’s a tough market to enter.”

The Pool, a website for millennial women founded by the BBC broadcaster Lauren Laverne in 2015 is also struggling. It froze commissioning freelance pieces and regular columns earlier this month, unable to pay its writers. According to its editor, this was the result of a financial restructure, but five of its directors resigned last August.

“A common thread is that journalists often don’t make brilliant business people. So you often find them launching things that fail, unfortunately,” says Dominic Ponsford, editor-in-chief of Press Gazette. “It’s easier than ever to launch a publication now, it’s easier than ever to very quickly build an audience. But some take it for granted that the revenue will flow once you’ve got an audience, and that’s definitely not a given.”

It’s notable that fledgling British publications that have fared better were founded by new writers and aspire to reach neglected audiences: Azeema, an annual print magazine launched in May 2017 for women of the Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian diasporas, for example, and Gal-dem, an online and print magazine for women of colour founded in September 2015.

Genuinely innovative titles – rather than those launched by rich men such as Charles Finch  – should be welcomed. “You see certain elements of schadenfreude when things fail, which is sad,” says Kleis Nielsen. “We’re in a time of entrepreneurial experimentation among journalists and we should celebrate that .”

This article appears in the 30 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail