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April 18, 2017, 12:32 p.m.

Newsonomics: Crimetown shows the podcast potential for local media partnership

The Providence Journal has found ways to cooperate with — and benefit from — the successful true-crime podcast.

Buddy Cianci once sold newspapers. Now he sells podcasts.

That link — surfaced gloriously in Gimlet Media’s Crimetown podcast — tells us lots about the rollicking pace of change in newsy digital media. And Crimetown seems like a prototype of a new phenomenon too young to name.

Listen for just a few minutes, beyond Crimetown’s unending assortment of wiseguys, mooks, capos, made guys, and friends of the family, and you can hear a new local media format being born. To be sure, Crimetown offers nationwide appeal, currently ringing up 3 million downloads a month. (By the end of its first season, coming too soon on May 7, it will have generated more than 16 million downloads.) But it’s the show’s ring of local authenticity that distinguishes it among the growing roster of must-listen podcasts. Crimetown offers a great sense of place — and it is deeply rooted in the city’s journalism, and in how that journalism has given the city a sense of itself.

“Welcome to Providence, Rhode Island, where organized crime and corruption infected every aspect of public life,” the podcast invites. There, in episode 1, we’re reminded of Cianci, the boy mayor of Providence, whose story played out on the national political stage, and led to a political career with some similarities to Angelo Errichetti, the Camden mayor who inspired the Jeremy Renner character at the heart of American Hustle. Cianci reappears throughout the series, and it’s his political dance with Raymond Patriarcha, the mob boss of New England from the 1950s into the 1980s, that gives structure to the insanely enjoyable storytelling.

If you listen to Crimetown, you hear frequent mentions of the Providence Journal, the Providence city archives, and the the Rhode Island Historical Society. Collectively, they provided lots of the raw material Crimetown creators Marc Smerling and Zac-Stuart Pontier based their show on.

As a further bonus, and another pointer for how their idea could be extended, the Crimetown show site offers a wealth of photos, stories, and more from the archives, on site and now through a newsletter. It’s local history, refreshed and put in perspective. (The site is, of course, built using Squarespace, the perennial podcast sponsor.)

“Local newspapers are an undeveloped resource,” Smerling, who was nominated for a 2003 Oscar for Capturing The Friedmans, told me recently. “There is a tendency for newspapers to hold tightly to their libraries. The Providence Journal was smart to recognize that sharing what they’ve collected over so many years was a way to broaden their audience and take ownership of the stories we are telling. It gives them another thing to offer their subscribers and it promotes a forward-thinking development of their brand.”

Crimetown listeners have heard a shoutout to Journal reporter Bill Malinowski in each episode. It was Malinowski, a 30-year Journal veteran who passed away last year, and reporter Wayne Miller who were the linchpins in connecting the Journal to the podcasters.

“The Journal has a rich history of very high quality investigative work,” says Smerling. “Through a law enforcement contact in Providence, we met Bill Malinowski…He helped us develop sources.” Former Providence Journal reporters Mike Stanton, Dan Barry, and current reporter, Wayne Miller, have also been important to the podcast. “Having access to the archives seemed like a natural and was a great research tool. And we wanted photos for the website,” Smerling says.

While the photo, story, and recordings archive proved indispensable, the Journal deserves credit for doing more than provide assistance in the background. Once the editors heard the first episode, they decided to write a review of each episode. “We do a gallery each time there is a Crimetown episode, and it gets 10,000 to 20,000 pageviews,” says managing editor Alan Rosenberg, a 39-year-veteran of the Journal. Just last week, the Journal announced that Rosenberg would succeed top editor Dave Butler, the longtime Mercury News, Detroit News, L.A. News Group, and MediaNews top editor. Butler had come to town soon after Belo sold off the paper to GateHouse Media in 2014.

The Crimetown page generates 5,000 to 10,000 pageviews a week, and the Journal also embeds a Soundcloud player so Journal listeners can directly listen to Crimetown.

“We looked at the track record of Smerling and his associates and with what they were planning to do here, it seemed irresistible,” says Rosenberg. “The irresistibility lay in the fact that we know that our readers are really interested in organized crime and its history in Rhode Island. We’ve written about this forever.

“This was a national outfit with a great track record coming in to take a different kind of look. When you’ve been around as long as the Providence Journal has, there are people over the years that you run into who just won’t ever talk to you, because you wrote something about their third cousin’s aunt 50 years ago. In family lore, ‘that’s when the Journal screwed us over.’

“This would be doing a different kind of journalism than we have ever done, because we’re not into radio. We do [sports] podcasts, but we’ve not undertaken this sort of podcast…I think it’s fair to say that the organized crime audience and the sports audience are not necessarily the same people.”

No money changes hands between the newspaper and the podcasters — but lots of learning does.

On a national level, newsy podcasting has seen its own renaissance over the past year. Even among its many other priorities, The New York Times has invested in a podcasting team. Its launch of The Daily — its prominent spot at the top of its mobile home page tells you lots about its popularity — has propelled the Times to seventh among all U.S. podcast publishers, according to Podtrac’s (imperfect) March rankings. (The Daily, the Times tells me today, has just surpassed 20 million listens, a combination of downloads and streams.) In Podtrac’s ranking of individual shows, The Daily comes in 13th overall, following such long-established shows as This American Life, Serial, Freakonomics, and the TED Radio Hour.

How well and how much could local media — newspapers, public media, and TV broadcasters — learn from Crimetown’s example and leverage their own unique local stories and histories? Can they move beyond digital products that mainly list the news headlines of the day, to offer the fuller knowledge of their cities of today — and how they came to be what they are?

Says Smerling: “If we have learned anything over the last decade, that people are shifting to the Internet for their entertainment, news, and longform nonfiction. Podcasts are growing faster than any other media platform. So it seems only natural for local newspapers to refresh their clip files into valuable storytelling in podcasts. Local newspapers and newspapers in general may very well be the thing that delivers podcasts to that portion of the audience who have struggled with the technology.”

Crime certainly fits the bill as a podcast subject, and Smerling says he hopes that season two of Crimetown — venue as yet unannounced — can borrow from what they learned in Providence: “I hope we can develop similar relationships in other cities.” But crime stories offer only one topical area to exploit, in his judgment.

“Crime is a compelling subject for people. All drama is heightened when it’s criminal. But every section of a local newspaper can offer subjects that would appeal to…and widen…their audience if developed into a podcast. Politics. The financial markets, international relations, even cooking. If we start to think of podcasts as an evolution of radio and the technology becomes more accessible and easy to use on the go, in our cars and in our phones, it will be only natural that people will search and subscribe to podcasts on any subject that they would read in the newspaper. And for local papers, it will expand audiences beyond local. This is already happening. In The Dark [American Public Media’s investigative show] is a great example.”

Rosenberg loves what Crimetown has done for the Journal, but is hesitant to commit the paper’s own resources to podcasting, given other priorities.

“We admire what they’re doing. We’re more focused on video. I’m very mindful of the large numbers of people they have committed to this project. I’m not sure we have the kind of staff power to bring to their, to replicate this project on a local level.” He believes that Facebook Live, with its local interview potential may offer more business bang for the buck.

Crimetown’s just part of a big podcast category, true crime. That’s a big area of enthusiasm, as well suited to the serial (and Serial) storytelling as were the weekly features shown on Saturday afternoons in the nation’s movie theaters 60 or more years ago.

Just recently, This American Life/Serial’s S-Town debuted, telling its own story of what appears to be a hushed-up, small-town Alabama murder. Then there’s Up and Vanished, Payne Lindsey’s well-received tale of a cold case Georgia murder. Police recently credited his investigative reporting as “playing a significant role” in charging a suspect in the 12-year-old case. Wondery’s Sword & Scale, often picked on top true-crime podcast tip lists, borrowed its lineage from TV, as Wondery CEO Hernan Lopez brought his TV experience at Fox International to the new medium. It’s these new podcast factories, like Wondery, Gimlet and This American Life/Serial, among others (highlighted in our fall five-part series) that could prove to be good partners for news media companies and organizations willing and ready to partner.

Outgoing Journal executive editor Dave Butler has seen a lot in his 46-year career. As he departs, he endorses this newest form of storytelling.

“Promoting, using, and helping Crimetown was a natural for the Providence Journal. It gave us the opportunity to relive history thru a podcast — as in real voices. This part of the future — partnering with others on their specialty — is great for readers and offers revenue opportunities.”

“I’d encourage every editor to participate, when Crimetown comes to your town,” he says. “Great digital traffic, great exposure, and a great reminder of the kind of material we have in our archives but don’t know what to do with it…Or, do this yourself before Crimetown comes to your town!”

POSTED     April 18, 2017, 12:32 p.m.
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