It is no secret that journalism is experiencing a crisis in the digital age of media. As circulation numbers plummet alongside advertising revenues, national newspapers are haemorrhaging money, while many smaller outlets have bled dry. Between 2005 and 2018, 245 regional and local newspapers shut-up shop in the UK alone. Digital advertising now outstrips traditional forms of advertising so optimists in the media industry might suggest by moving content online, journalism could survive in the 21st Century. Yet news corporations have not enjoyed the opportunities presented by the rise of the Internet. Facebook and Google have established an uncompromising hegemony on the digital advertising market, accounting for 60% of its revenue this year.
In the wake of this profound dislocation, media companies have scrambled to adapt to their new reality to avoid going extinct. Online news sites have resorted to click bait stories. Newspapers have retreated behind paywalls, with the FT leading the way in 2002, and the Times and the Telegraph following its lead in 2010 and 2012 respectively. The Guardian still allows free online access to their journalism but has resorted to begging for donations at the bottom of every article. Internationally, some newspapers have survived by acquiring billionaire philanthropic patrons, like the Washington Post with Jeff Bezos.
Journalists and editors are innovating, adopting new forms of media and new business strategies to keep their industry afloat. Amidst this turmoil, one promising type of “new media” has experienced an incredible rise in recent years to provide some hope: the daily news podcast.
When podcasts first appeared, they were known as audioblogs. They represented a democratic alternative to radio, a space where anyone with a microphone could make their voice heard. Through the 2000s podcasts became more polished and professional but still struggled to make a significant mainstream impact. That all changed in 2014 when a radio show called The American Life produced a true-crime podcast spinoff called Serial. It quickly became a sensation as 5 million people tuned in to its 12 episodes. It proved the potential of the podcast in a time when smartphones allowed people to consume them at any time and in any place. They became recognised as a high quality and in-demand alternative to radio one could personalize to their tastes.
The popularity of the podcast has soared in the five years since Serial. In the UK weekly listeners have doubled. Podcast networks have been created, such as Earwolf and Gimlet Media, who curate a range of shows for a dedicated core of fans. Earwolf now attracts 400,000 listeners across 50 shows and Gimlet was this year sold to Spotify for $230 million. Recognising the opportunity to boost their personal brand, celebrities have flocked to the medium. Today one can listen to podcasts hosted by Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand, Gwyneth Paltrow and Amy Schumer. Audioblogs may have originated from modest beginnings, but podcasts are now a force to be reckoned with.
Yet despite this success, podcasts have found it difficult to monetise their popularity. After quickly gaining popularity, true-crime series like Serial, S-Town or Sleuth have found it difficult to attract advertisers before their seasons came to an end. Serial relied on audience donations to create a second series. Yet the medium seemed perfect for advertisers as most podcast listeners are in the 18-34 age bracket that advertisers find notoriously difficult to access. Research shows 85% of people listen to the end of podcasts and at 90 seconds on average, podcast adverts are longer than those on TV or radio.
Thus in 2017, journalism was looking for new forms of media to expand into and podcasts were looking for a reliable revenue stream. Like some strange corporate rom-com, they found exactly what they were looking for in each other, and the daily news podcast was born.
The trailblazer for this new form of journalism was undoubtedly The Daily podcast from the New York Times. Hosted by Michael Barbaro, The Daily is a 20-minute deep-dive into a single news story, produced five days a week. Episodes are put together through interviews between Barbaro and other New York Times reporters, who outline and comment on their articles. The podcast concludes with a “Here’s what else you need to know today” section that summarises the day’s headlines.
The team at The Daily boldly claim, “This is what the news should sound like,” and it is hard to disagree with them. Rather than start with the headline, Barbaro and his crew wind back beginning of every news story, revealing the true origins of every conflict, the basis for every constitutional clash. Immaculate sound design give the podcast momentum and intensity, while astutely chosen sound bites weaved through the interviews transport the listener right into the action with a real sense of immediacy.
The Daily debuted in February 2017 and caught the zeitgeist early on, becoming extraordinarily successful in a matter of months. Before a year was up it had been streaming 100 million times, and a deal with national radio was sealed. Today, 2 million listeners tune in every morning.
I spoke to Ellen Barry, the Chief International Correspondent for the New York Times based in London, about what it was like to watch the success of the Daily from inside the newspaper. “I just don’t think any of us had any idea what a phenomenon it was going to be,” she said. “We’re in a period where the newspaper is trying all kinds of experiments … and this one just took off beyond anyone’s expectations.”
I wondered whether it was annoying to be hauled away from your desk to be interviewed for The Daily, but she laughs as says, “I don’t think there’s a single journalist in The New York Times who wouldn’t be thrilled.” She tells me that Michael Barbaro has become somewhat of a celebrity in the Times’ office, “he’s a matinee idol.”
The Daily draws back the curtain on the process of journalism, as you hear journalists putting together their stories and grappling with the evidence in front of them. In an episode about the New York Times’ investigation into Donald Trump’s wealth, journalist Sue Craig retells the riveting story of how she went to her mailbox one day in 2016 to find 3 pages of Donald Trump’s previously unreleased tax returns anonymously posted to her from Trump Tower. Her colleague Russ Buettner, when asked what he felt in that moment, says “it was just like holy shit.” Sue and Russ then outline how they collected 50,000 pages of Trump Family’s financial records, as you hear audio of them taking Barbaro around their investigation room, shuffling around the documents that made up this groundbreaking report. Every episode has an air of All The President’s Men to it, and every Times journalist who is interviewed inherits the role of Woodward and Bernstein.
Ellen Barry is thrilled that journalists can now tell the story of how they put together their articles. “The segment [in the Daily] obviously gives you more insight into the personalities and the screw ups and the ambiguity behind the process. I just think it added so many dimensions to the print piece.”
“This is all what would end up, traditionally, on the cutting room floor, right? Like people saying “fuck you, I don’t want to talk to you,” or people sort of going back and forth on their version of events… but it just turns out that everything we were cutting out tells you so much more about the story.”
Beyond its production value, the success of The Daily can be explained by the resources at their disposal. Barbaro’s team can tap into The New York Times’ unrivalled news network consisting of 31 international bureaus and 200 journalists. Moreover, The Daily’s emergence has coincided with a moment when the news is receiving unparalleled attention. As Barbaro put it himself, “We launched in the opening days of a polarizing new presidency that seemed to produce earthquake-sized news every day.”
Although the New York Times does not disclose how much money The Daily brings in, it is clear that they have cracked to problem of monetising the podcast. With the regularity of their schedule, advertisers know roughly how many listeners there will be on any given episode. There isn’t a scramble to find advertisers halfway through a season and there isn’t a specific order that people must listen to the episodes in. A leaked sales proposal shows that a sponsorship slot on the show costs $290,000.
Beyond direct revenue, The Daily boosts the brand of the New York Times, and attracts new young subscribers to the paper, on which its funding is now based. The New York Times have a record 4.5 million paid subscribers right now due to what people at the paper call the “Trump Bump”, as they have received 200,000 new subscribers every quarter since the presidential election. Staff at the New York Times recognise that it could equally be called the “Barbaro Bump.”
Ellen Barry said, “Audiences are key to the survival of the industry, it used to rely on advertising and the advertising base is melting away. Audiences are the only possible way to continue this kind of investigative journalism of accountability and believe me it is an absolute obsession to connect quality reporting of this kind with people who otherwise might not be newspaper readers. The Daily is doing that better than any other alternate form we have.”
Other media outlets have followed in the wake of The Daily’s success. Since its debut, the number of daily podcasts has tripled as, in the words of Felix Salmon of WIRED, “publishers are racing to own the money-printing machine that is the daily news podcast.” The Times, The Telegraph, The FT, The Economist, Sky News and The Spectator have all invested in the podcast business recently. The podcasts closest to the formula of The Daily in terms of production and format is probably The Guardian’s Today in Focus and Vox’s Today Explained. The news podcast could possibly prove the saviour for local papers too. Google has recently invested half a million pounds into a project called Laudable, which aims to create audio content for regional media companies as a means of keeping them financially sustainable. This could just be the tipping-point for the industry, as some analysts believe the audio market could be worth $656 million by 2020, with a large portion of that coming from podcasts.
Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s look at the numbers. How significant was the couple hundred thousand that The Daily brought the New York Times in the context of the 1.7 billion the newspaper earned altogether in 2017, even if you account for the subscriptions the podcast accounts for on top of that? Even if the podcast market’s explosive growth continues, can it really make up for the losses sustained by the decline in newspapers sold?
Ultimately, the rise of podcast journalism is valuable mainly as a statement of intent. It shows that media companies will continue to innovate maintain a viable financial future in this new digital age. The New York Times has been at the forefront of other exciting innovations. Ellen Barry said that at times it has felt like the newspaper’s leadership was “throwing spaghetti at the wall” to see what stuck. Yet she gives them credit for creating flagship new products. “They recognised very early on that printing an account of what happened yesterday could not be our only product… to their credit they were willing to break with established forms.”
Alongside The Daily, in recent years the newspaper has debuted a parenting website as well as a cooking website that gives subscribers access to 19,000 recipes. The New York Times is also ingratiating itself with Hollywood. A documentary series on FX called The Weekly was announced in May 2019, which will follow reporters every week as they investigate news stories across the world. The New York Times aren’t the first media organization to turn to TV; VICE have a daily news show on HBO and both Buzzfeed and Vox agreed deals with Netflix.
Another vast source of revenue for newspapers in the 21st Century is in the events business. The leader in this instance is probably The Atlantic magazine, which runs 125 events a year accounting for a incredible 20% of their annual revenue. GQ organizes a comedy gig at the Hammersmith Apollo to coincide with their comedy issue, while Vogue India puts on the Vogue Wedding Show. Media companies have the contacts and spaces pull in big revenue in the events business, especially considering how much people are willing to pay to meet top journalists. The FT put on a conference in New York last week titled “Trust, Technology and Transformation in an Age of Upheaval” with speakers including the editor of the Washington Post, the editor of Vanity Fair and CNN news presenter Don Lemon. Tickets for this one-day event cost $900, making the Oxford Union membership finally seem like value for money. The New York Times has proved with The Daily that newspapers can flourish in the digital age, even they need to look beyond their print circulation to do so. Podcasts bring quality journalism to new audiences, and illuminate the mechanics of investigative journalism for existing customers. The success of the daily news podcast, and other new forms of media that newspapers are diversifying into, proves that advent of the Internet does not have to represent the death knell of journalism. Technological change causes dislocation, but it also forces valu