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The LA Times’ Kevin Merida thinks Los Angeles is “the perfect place to redefine the modern newspaper”
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July 15, 2021, 11:49 a.m.

Nothing against the “Death Star,” but the LA Times thinks its new daily news podcast can go where the biggies can’t

“When you say national, usually what that means is New York or D.C. We’re trying to read that so that the gravity is really coming out of Southern California and expanding outward from that.”

Any journalist who wants to launch a daily news podcast probably needs to think about the Death Star first.

That would be The New York Times’ wildly popular show, The Daily, which looms over any conversation about daily news podcasts.

“The Daily is the Death Star podcast. It’s humongous, it’s huge,” said Gustavo Arellano, the host of the Los Angeles Times’ three-month-old podcast The Times. The show promises to bring listeners “the world through the eyes of the West Coast.”

“The Daily is going to tell certain stories that we can’t bother with because The Daily’s just going to tell them better, based on who they are,” Arellano said. “But we have the advantage of being nimble. We’re new, and we’re hungry.”

Let’s quickly get some stats about The Daily out of the way. It’s been a major success story for The New York Times, consistently one of the most popular podcasts in the U.S. and boasting an average of 4 million downloads per day in 2020. It has been credited with driving the explosive growth of daily news shows in the United States and beyond. Also important? Podcast listeners, including those tuning into The Daily, tend to be young and well-educated, prompting publishers to see audio as key to attracting the next generation of subscribers.

And that’s something the Los Angeles Times is mighty interested in. It currently has 400,000 digital subscribers, and the newspaper aims to grow that number to 1 million — and beyond. (“There’s 40 million people in California alone, and there’s no reason why we can’t get 1 in 10,” owner Patrick Soon-Shiong told CNN in June.)

The paper’s leadership thinks that investing in different ways to deliver their journalism, including expanding their audio offerings, can help get them there. Here’s how The LA Times describes … The Times:

Expect award-winning reporting, hard-hitting investigations and random randomness from the biggest newspaper west of the Mississippi right to your ears. Whether it’s farmworkers, Silicon Valley, Hollywood or car chases, we’ll give you deep dives and snippets, rants and discourse, laughers and weepers, with a diversity of voices and a bunch of drama and desmadre.

Episodes of The Times typically fall under the 25-minute-ish “deep dive” category that has emerged as a favorite format for daily podcasts. After a few headlines, Arellano typically digs into a single issue, often enlisting a Times journalist to walk listeners through their reporting.

The podcast strays from what producers dub the “daily news magazine” format on occasion. It convenes a monthly “Masters of Disasters” panel to talk earthquakes, wildfires, eroding coastlines, and other calamities with journalists on the paper’s disasters desk. On Fridays, Arellano passes his duties on to a guest host and the day’s episode takes the form of “an audio documentary, our version of This American Life.” (A recent Friday episode on vaccine-hesitant Californians was guest hosted by Erika D. Smith and featured fellow columnist Sandy Banks discussing her struggles to convince a family member to get immunized.) This rotation allows Arellano time to write his column and lets other Times journalists dip their toes into audio.

“This is an experiment for the LA Times,” Arellano said. “My goal is to have every single reporter eventually on The Times, one way or another.”

The LA Times isn’t new to podcasts. It has more than a dozen, including the weekly chat-style Asian Enough, limited-run narrative series, and a handful with a true crime bent. (Dirty John, which the Times simultaneously published as a print series and podcast in 2017, was made into a TV series.)

“Our thinking is that by diversifying the offerings, we can reach and tap into lots of different audiences,” said Abbie Fentress Swanson, executive producer of podcasts and audio. “We knew we wanted to make a daily news podcast partially for that reason and because we have this wonderful newsroom of hundreds of reporters who are making and creating and writing great stories. We knew we want to tap into that.”

Shani Hilton, deputy managing editor of news for The Los Angeles Times, said the goal is to become indispensable to readers.

“A big, long-term goal for the LA Times is that we want to really become essential in people’s lives and in all the different ways that they operate,” Hilton said. “Part of that is providing people with some humor or providing people with a little bit of pathos.”

“Our new editor, Kevin [Merida], said he wants our podcasts to be a little ratchet,” she added. “We’re working on that.”

Podcast hosts hold a special place in the public imagination. (Please see the rapt attention paid in “The Voice of a Generation” or interviewers making inquiries about Michael Barbaro’s long pauses or “bewildering pronunciation”.)

Arellano speaks quite a bit faster than Barbaro, is funnier on air, and brings more of himself to the hosting duties. When describing Rep. Katie Porter’s district before an interview with her, for example, Arellano noted, “It comprises cities that embody how Americans still think about Orange County — you know, wealthy suburbs, middle-class residents.” Then Arellano, who previously served as publisher and editor of the alt weekly OC Weekly, added: “The type of place where people call the police if you park a car from the 1970s in front of their house. No, seriously, it happened to me more than once.”

The Los Angeles Times declined to share a subscriber count, downloads, or other figures for the three-month-old podcast. Podcast analytics site Chartable shows that The Times has been firmly lodged in the top 20 daily news podcasts in recent weeks, trailing more established podcasts like The Washington Post’s Post Reports, NPR’s Up First and Consider This, The Wall Street Journal’s What’s News and The Journal, and Crooked Media’s What A Day. The New York Times’ The Daily, of course, tops that list.

The LA Times hopes that focus on voices from California — and the West, generally — will distinguish the podcast from its many competitors.

Arellano pointed to their coverage of Vice President Kamala Harris’s message to immigrants as she visited Central America and Mexico as “your quintessential episode of The Times.” (“Do not come.”) The show starts with reporting from Cindy Carcamo, a staff writer focused on immigration and a daughter of Guatemalan immigrants herself, and then turns to a UC Davis professor who takes listeners through the twists and turns in the history of Guatemalan migration, including the influence of American interventionism.

“Nothing against the far bigger podcasts out there, like Post Report and The Daily. I know Post Reports did a Guatemalan episode but they’re not going to bring that diversity of voices that we’re going to bring None of them are,” Arellano says. “Here, we’re just reporting on what’s in front of us. We don’t have that far to go, frankly.”

Still, he acknowledges that the LA Times is starting from behind. “Look, let’s be honest. We’re late to the game. We’re five years late to the podcast game. We’re following outlets with far more reporters, far more listeners, because they’ve been ahead,” he said. “The only way we’re going to win at our game is by differentiating ourselves in a way where people will say, ‘Okay, I already listened to, for instance, What a Day by Crooked Media but I have to listen to The Times as well because they’re going to bring me a completely different story that no one else is bringing.”

Hilton said that framing is part of a wider emphasis at the outlet.

“Across the entire publication of the LA Times, we have really been trying to drill down in what we think is a really strong area for growth, which is a Western, California perspective. The nice thing about that is that it can mean a lot of different things,” Hilton said, mentioning Arizona, Nevada, Seattle, and Portland as well as “all of the tentacles that extend in and out of LA” to places like “the Pacific Rim, China, Asia, South America, Central America.”

“That informs how we think about our storytelling. We’re not trying to do the news of the day in the same way as news outlets that come from a national perspective. When you say national, usually what that means is New York or D.C.,” Hilton said. “We’re trying to read that so that the gravity is really coming out of Southern California and expanding outward from that.”

POSTED     July 15, 2021, 11:49 a.m.
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