Missing the Story: Chris Cook at The Cambridge Union

Darren Wong 19 November 2019
Image Credits: Tortoise Media, Royal Television Society, Darren Wong

Too many newsrooms chasing the news, but missing the story. Tortoise Media prides itself for “building a different type of newsroom”, one that elevates “slower, wiser news” over the typical rapid delivery of news to our fingertips by most mainstream news outlets. Instead of being driven by breaking news, Tortoise Media seeks to address the sheer volume of information that inundates and disorientates us each day, as well as the lack of representation of certain interests. Chris Cook, a current partner and editor at Tortoise Media, conducted a “ThinkIn” at The Cambridge Union, a conversation-style panel discussion that invites diverse opinions and perspectives from members of the audience.

Bearing a wealth of experience in journalism as the former Policy Editor at BBC Newsnight and the Education Correspondent at the Financial Times, Chris challenged our conventional notion of journalism and addressed several pertinent issues that the journalism industry is already, or will be, facing — balancing profit-making priorities, the digitalisation of media, the democratisation of journalism and the need for both professional and ethical standards.

During the ThinkIn session, Chris criticised the drive to simplification within the ecosystem of journalism, where stories are cherrypicked, framed and herded to appeal to readers. While he does not deny the need to maintain a profit margin, he is harsh with how “snappy” news today are, without distinguishing the interesting from the important. “There is nothing wrong when nothing matters” and journalists should never feel pressured to only share interesting stories. The need to enforce standards in journalism was a key point he reiterated, as he did when discussing the rise of citizen journalism. “Journalism needs to be sensible… and there is a craft to organising how you write a story.” His assertion that journalism is a skill, of taking seemingly unimportant information and extracting its relevance and wider implications — it interestingly hints at his support of re-centralising the voice of authority, expertise and interest back within the circle of journalists, which is what Tortoise Media seeks to achieve as well, by consolidating information and being one credible source for its readers.

“…it interestingly hints at his support of re-centralising the voice of authority, expertise and interest back within the circle of journalists…”

In Chris’s words, “to look at the world in context without the twists and turns”.

I asked Chris how his experience at Tortoise Media was compared to his past positions at BBC and the Financial Times as working in mainstream and alternative news outlets would certainly witness different internal working environments, expectations and deliverables required. “The biggest single change is the time and space that we were given for projects at Tortoise. We had a piece that was supposed to go around when we left the European Union last year so that was basically ready for March 31. Rather than rushing out something half-baked, we took longer and wrote an opinion piece a few weeks later.” Chuckling, he joked, “We beat the deadline to the European Union!” The piece ended up being a 29,000-word long book.

“The idea was that rather than trying to do something with one killer fact or one key headline, we wanted to discuss the history of the negotiations and what went wrong — that’s something you cannot imagine doing at other news outlets. First, you wouldn’t get the time; and second, these news outlets have a very clear view of what a story looks like.” He cited his experience at the Financial Times: “if you broke a really big story, you can get 400 words on the front page of the newspaper. And maybe 800 more words inside.” Referring to the book, he maintained that “there’s no way of doing something of this length.”

Tortoise’s unique selling point lies in its offering of more comprehensive news from an analytical lens, but would the slower pace put Tortoise at a disadvantage compared to other news outlets that could pitch the story first? “I think as long as everyone else is doing the fast stuff, it’s ok. We’re not proposing that we should replace [mainstream news outlets], but there are people who find the volume of news baffling and confusing, and we think we can help them offer more context. It’s not just about the things that happened this week — it’s explaining why it matters or doesn’t matter, why you should worry or shouldn’t worry.” I must have looked slightly sceptical at his response, for he questioned if I had any limitation in mind. Profit-making, perhaps? He agreed it is definitely a risk but a well-calculated one.

As a relatively new media platform, it would be difficult for Tortoise Media to compete against more established heavyweights in the journalism industry. If Tortoise Media chooses to take a backseat from the frenzied press coverage that prizes alacrity, how does it reach out to a wider audience and get people to see the value of the different Tortoise seeks to make in the industry?

Chris nodded, saying that this is a concern they are aware of and are working on. Pointing out his earlier speech at the Union, “these meetings really matter. It ensures that members aren’t all the same people, and that we don’t just end up in rooms in West London, full of posh people.” Discussed during the ThinkIn session was how readers tend to self-stream into isolated readerships too. Chris gave the example of the Tortoise Network, “a scheme for getting companies to pay for free memberships for people from backgrounds who are otherwise under-represented” and highlighted a progressive price structure that should be affordable to anyone. In fact, Tortoise is offering the first 5,000 students free membership. (This is still available at the time of writing. Join at this link.)

As a student journalist myself, I ended up the interview by seeking several words of advice. “The most important thing to remember is to start as a report, not a columnist.” Chris’ disdain for opinions without the grounding of facts and observations through investigation is evident. “You must go out to see stuff, be nosy and poke at things. Journalism is not a thing you do on your own in your room; you do it in different places — trains, when travelling from place to place, darkened alleys or pubs and bars or coffee shops.” A few weeks ago, Chris just attended a Fascist rally in central London, but he was quick to clarify, “I was there to investigate!” He once again lamented that there is “too much opinion and not enough reporting” today, reminding me that “most good columnists were formally reporters. So, report, report, report!”

“Journalism is not a thing you do on your own in your room; you do it in different places — trains, when travelling from place to place, darkened alleys or pubs and bars or coffee shops.”