By launching the magazine Tortoise, an innovative trio of freelancers has established a new platform for creatives and independent businesses in Chester.
by Julia Migné
Renown for being one of the best preserved walled cities in Britain, Chester is famous for its Roman history, its 13th-century rows and racecourse. But under the layers of history and archaeological ruins lies a lively town with independent cafés, a strong food scene and a vibrant atmosphere of street musicians and entertainers.
Dig a bit deeper and you might even be surprised to discover that this charming little place is abuzz with cultural and artistic initiatives and is home to a passionate community of creatives.
Ask around though and the community will let you know that it has often felt that there was something missing in Chester. The creative community felt the need to be heard and seen, the need to put the spotlight on all the amazing individuals that make Chester a truly unique place to live in.
“The purpose is to create a publication that can stand for something, have some positive impact and show people that there is something going on here, that they don’t necessarily have to move to Liverpool or Manchester for energy and stimulus.”
Frustrated with the local media landscape, a group of passionate creatives gathered in a local pub to brainstorm new ways to turn the tide and to truly showcase the numerous hidden talents contained within the city’s famous walls.
“It seemed like something needed to happen to express the creative side of Chester,” explains Sam Ryley, photographer and co-founder of Tortoise Magazine. “There had been an idea of a magazine floating around for a little while before, but it just didn’t seem possible [at the time].”
Initially, struggling to agree on the best way to tackle what they felt was a real lack of representation of the creative industry in the English city, the group slowly dwindled in size and shrank to just three enthusiasts.
“As soon as it was just us three, it kind of took off,” says Kirsty Dalton, graphic designer and co-founder of the magazine. “It was possibly too many people to get it moving at the beginning!”
The determined trio had one idea in mind: produce a magazine about Chester and for Chester, that could represent the numerous creatives inhabiting the vibrant city. With each of them bringing their own unique skill sets to the table, they quickly realised that they had what it takes to make this magazine a reality.
“Kirsty knew she could put a magazine together,” explains Paul Caputo, writer and co-founder of the magazine, “I knew I could edit articles and curate the magazine and Sam knew that visually he could bring all of that to life!”
From the start, the team opted not to get involved with the frenzy of online publishing, they simply refused to “create yet another online Chester blog”. Part of the plan was to promote the idea of slow journalism and to encourage people to take their time with the articles and artwork instead of sporadically clicking through things on a device.
The project slowly grew into a publication printed three times a year, fittingly named Tortoise, aimed to be as Sam explains “a beacon for the creative industry”. Ultimately, the trio wants the magazine to strengthen a side of Chester that is too often ignored by showcasing the strong creative scene present in this medieval city.
“The purpose of this magazine is not for us to make money,” clarifies Paul. “The purpose is to create a publication that can stand for something, have some positive impact and show people that there is something going on here, that they don’t necessarily have to move to Liverpool or Manchester for energy and stimulus.”
Rather than being a collection of events, the magazine was developed as a timeless entity, something you could flick through months after its publication and still find relevant and interesting.
“We wanted stories rather than what’s on,” explains Kirsty, “so it was really the stories behind the people and the place rather than this is what is happening now. “
What started as an experiment with 400 copies printed has now reached its fifth issue and grown to 4,000 copies distributed for free across Chester. “Social media was buzzing when we released the first issue and we were pretty surprised,” explains Sam.
With many businesses requesting to get the magazine for their customers, Tortoise has managed to reach the tables of many trendy cafés and even found a place within various GP’s waiting rooms.
The magazine is funded through adverts from mostly independent local businesses, whose offering fits the ethos of the publication. In this sense, what makes Tortoise stand out immediately is the design of the adverts and how well they blend together within the pages.
“They’ve got to be keeping up with the style of the magazine,” explains Sam. “I’ll even create artwork for adverts if people need, just so it doesn’t bring the visual quality down.”
The trio is however extremely clear on the fact that they don’t allow any type of advertorial, with Sam adding that having an “unflappable integrity” is core to Tortoise‘s values.
Bringing new people in for each issue, the magazine has a very specific feel to it, combining strongly written pieces with beautifully designed illustrations and imagery. As Sam explains: “One of the things that we’ve always done is try to create a very strong piece of journalism and then back it up with beautiful pieces of artwork so that you’ve [not only] got a beautiful piece visually but it’s also incredibly deep.”
Kirsty also adds that the team is creating a directory of potential contributors, meaning that if someone’s contribution doesn’t make it to the next issue of the magazine, they might still be contacted in the future to work on another issue. By introducing people to each other when relevant, the Tortoise team also allows for new collaborations to grow organically between writers and illustrators.
Determined to bring the creative side of the city into the spotlight, the trio has even recently gone one step further by launching takeover events across Chester.
Adding an extra dimension with live music and art performances, these events allow the community to celebrate the magazine and is also a nice way to network and to get all Tortoise’s remotely-based contributors together.
“Initially we just wanted to get a few people together to celebrate we’d made our first issue and printed something” explains Paul. “Next time we just wanted to acknowledge that we’d come through a year of doing this but we had a massive turnout!”
“It was an opportunity for us to reflect and acknowledge what we had managed to achieve with no budget at all and it was a little test as well as we wanted to see how many people would actually turn up!”
“It was then we realised that Tortoise had a readership of people who wanted to come out and engage and interact,” adds Sam.
In July, Tortoise threw a second takeover party to celebrate the publication of their fifth issue – including this time some chainsaw carving, live music and a huge artwork unveiling.
Far from being just another outlet for creativity, these parties are also part of a bigger plan to develop Tortoise and take the magazine a step forward.
“We obviously want to pay contributors more money for working with us,” explains Paul. “So we are looking at ways in which we can get some more revenue through, and events are one of those offshoots of the brand that might help with that!”
It seems that Tortoise still has a long road to roam on in the ancient Roman city.