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March 31, 2016, 10 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

The New York Times launches a podcast team to create a new batch of wide-reaching shows

Following the launch of the Modern Love podcast earlier this year, the Times plans to launch several new shows this year, backed by advertising and designed to draw broad audiences.

Another news organization has decided to invest in podcasts, and this one’s a biggie: The New York Times is creating a new audio team that will work to launch a batch of news and opinion podcasts this year and more in 2017.

To start, the Times will “launch a handful of shows with outside partners which, like Modern Love, have a strong prospect of quickly attracting a wide audience,” Kinsey Wilson, editor for innovation and strategy (and formerly the EVP and chief content officer at NPR), and Sam Dolnick, senior editor, wrote in a memo released Thursday. (The full text is below.) The Times will then “use those shows as a platform from which we can build audience for shows produced within The Times that are as integral to our coverage as our live events and visual journalism efforts.”

“We haven’t settled on themes or particular shows yet,” Wilson told me. “But there’s no shortage of great ideas in the building. In the early going, we will probably favor things that have some shelf life as opposed to news that’s highly perishable, simply because we want to build audience quickly.”

The Times’ effort, focused on pulling in revenue and attracting listeners at broad scale, follows similar efforts from papers like The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal.

While many newspapers have experimented with podcasts and even launched several, the Times appears to be the first paper to launch a separate podcast-focused audio unit that is focused on pulling in revenue and attracting listeners at broad scale.

The Times launched its Modern Love podcast, based on the Style section column, in January in partnership with Boston’s WBUR. The show gets more than 300,000 downloads a week.

Modern Love “plays perfectly as radio,” Wilson said. Going forward, though, “I want to make clear that the idea is not to take The New York Times as it is today and simply render an audio version. Modern Love is probably the exception, where we’re able to take the printed word as it was published in the newspaper and create a really engaging listening experience,” he added. “In most cases, we’re going to have to do things that are creative and original to the medium. The ambition is to create a great listening experience that people feel is of the quality and substance they typically associate with The New York Times, but that may be very different from stuff that we produce for video, the web, even live video.”

Samantha Henig, a Times senior editor for digital transition, will be editorial director of the new audio unit. The team Kelly Alfieri, executive director of special editorial projects; Diantha Parker, who will be an editor and senior audio producer; Pedro Rosado, who will serve as an audio producer; and audio producer Catrin Einhorn. (Parker and Einhorn both previously worked in public radio.) Adam Davidson, co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money and co-host of Gimlet’s Surprisingly Awesome, is an adviser.

The team will hire more staff as more shows launch and is still searching for a senior editor/executive producer to lead the “creative vision” for the team. The Times will be selling advertising against the new podcasts, and the podcast offerings will eventually be incorporated into the Times’ existing apps and digital products.

In addition to Modern Love, the Times was already producing three podcasts in-house: Inside the Times, Music Popcast, and Inside The New York Times Book Review. Those are niche-y, they’re not revenue-driven, and they’ve been around for a long time (10 years, in the case of the book review podcast). Five years ago, the Times actually had more than a dozen podcasts, Wilson noted; of those, only Music Popcast and Inside The New York Times Book Review remain. But they haven’t been monetized, and they predate what Wilson describes as the “renaissance” of the current moment in podcasting.

(The paper killed off many of its shows in 2011 and 2012, citing “a recent assessment of where the newsroom puts its resources [that] came to the conclusion that there may be other venues and programs that may be more advantageous in connecting with our audience.”)

“There’s an opportunity to bring a level of craft and a level of production to what we do that we hadn’t been able to do until now,” Wilson said. “We’re at a moment now where on-demand audio listening is really likely to take off, and there’s an opportunity to reach a much wider audience than there was in the first decade of podcasting.”

Full memo:

Ever since the podcast Serial created a minor cultural sensation in the fall of 2014, independent audio reporting and storytelling has enjoyed a remarkable resurgence.

Favorable economics combined with a steady rise in on-demand listening has allowed a craft that once thrived largely within public radio to find new outlets for creative expression.

The Times is stepping up its efforts, joining the ranks of startups and established players who have embraced podcasting and made it a part of their journalistic repertoire.

Modern Love (produced in partnership with WBUR) launched in January at #1 in iTunes and, with more than 300,000 downloads a week,has remained comfortably in the top 20 alongside more established shows like RadioLab and Planet Money.

Next month, we will begin building an audio team to create a suite of shows that combines the journalistic range and authority of The Times with a sound that reflects the full creative potential of audio reporting and production. Our goal is to launch several new high-quality podcasts in news and opinion in 2016 with more to come next year, supported in the early going by ad revenue.

We expect our audio report to further expand our storytelling arsenal and allow us to connect with our audience in ever more ways, along the lines of our pioneering work in virtual reality and visual journalism.

A small team that includes Samantha Henig and Charles Duhigg in news and Erik Borenstein in strategy, helped us pull together a plan to support those ambitions.

Beginning next week, Sam Henig steps in as Editorial Director for audio, reporting to Sam Dolnick. She’ll oversee all aspects of the effort and ensure that there is close coordination between opinion and the newsroom and business counterparts in technology, product, design, advertising and marketing. She is assuming product management responsibility, working closely with Kelly Alfieri.

At the same time, we will begin a search for a Senior Editor and Executive Producer who will lead the creative vision for the team, answering the question, “What should The New York Times sound like?” With newsroom leadership, the Executive Producer will identify and coach Times employees with on-air potential, assess opportunities for new shows in a crowded field, and pilot, test and bring those shows to market.

Diantha Parker, who had a long history in public radio before joining The Times, will leave the national desk to become an editor and senior audio producer on the team. Her first task will be to work with desks to further develop some of our existing podcasts.

Pedro Rosado, who was part of the Times’ original podcasting team and has helped shepherd existing audio efforts while working on the video desk, will become an audio producer.

Catrin Einhorn, an audio producer with decades of experience who most recently was instrumental in a collaboration with This American Life, will work with the audio team while continuing to report to Steve Duenes.

Jocelyn Gonzalez, a freelance audio editor who has been working on Times podcasts for the last decade, will continue in her role with our current in-house shows: Inside the Times, Music Popcast and Inside The New York Times Book Review, which is about to celebrate its ten-year anniversary.

Adam Davidson, the co-creator of Planet Money, co-host of Gimlet’s “Surprisingly Awesome”and a columnist for the magazine, is advising us as we build the audio team.

Additional staff will be hired as shows are launched.

Once the team is assembled, the plan is to pursue a two-fold strategy: to launch a handful of shows with outside partners which, like Modern Love, have a strong prospect of quickly attracting a wide audience; and then use those shows as a platform from which we can build audience for shows produced within The Times that are as integral to our coverage as our live events and visual journalism efforts.

I hope you’ll join us in congratulating Samantha, Diantha and Pedro in taking on this new venture. And let us know if you have ideas or questions we can address.

Kinsey and Sam

A previous version of this story stated that The New York Times was the first large newspaper to launch a separate podcast unit. The Wall Street Journal and Guardian already have podcast units.

Photo of earbud-sharing on the New York subway by Eric Parker used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 31, 2016, 10 a.m.
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