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Oct. 20, 2021, 3:37 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

The New York Times hopes to hook listeners on audio. Will a new standalone app do the trick?

“You could spend hours a day on our home page and read seemingly everything that our newsroom produces and not come across much of our audio. That has increasingly felt odd to us.”

When The New York Times went on an audio-centric shopping spree in 2020 — purchasing the longform-focused app Audm and the podcasting company Serial Productions — people guessed a paid audio product might be in the works.

The Times’ own Ben Smith noted that shows like Serial and This American Life, if packaged with other hits like The Daily, could form the basis of a “HBO of podcasts.” A year later, the Times appears ready to test that theory. It announced last week that it’s been building a standalone app — “New York Times Audio” — to house its audio journalism and will be inviting beta testers to give feedback. (You can volunteer here, though only U.S.-based iPhone users need apply.) The survey for those interested in participating has a number of questions about paid subscriptions and asks users to indicate how much they agree or disagree with statements like, “If one of my favorite podcasts started charging a fee for access, I would stop listening.”

The new app will feature the Times’ own podcasts alongside narrated versions of news, opinion, and magazine articles across a handful of publishers. For those who aren’t participating in the closed beta, nothing will change for the moment. The Times is not putting any podcasts behind a paywall or making them exclusive to the new app with this announcement; you can still listen to The Daily or The Ezra Klein Show on Apple Podcasts and Spotify and wherever else you like to hit play.

Despite a mixed history with standalone apps — Cooking and Games live on, but R.I.P. NYT Now and NYT Opinion — the Times decided to move forward with a separate home for its audio journalism because it was the best environment to run tests and solicit feedback. (A similar beta test is underway for NYT Kids.)

And it’s clear the Times is still in test-and-try mode at the moment. Sam Dolnick, assistant managing editor at The New York Times, described the app as a “first attempt” and “just one experiment” in audio-first products. To start, the new app will act as a kind of homepage for the Times’ catalog of audio journalism. A rotating selection, curated by Times editors, will guide listeners through a mix of formats and topics — from newsy pieces and short updates to feature stories and longer, “more suspenseful” narratives.

“Something that has the dynamism and serendipity of a great homepage — does that appeal to listeners?” Dolnick said. “Does that become something that they could build a habit and relationship with? We don’t know, but we want to find out.”

Stephanie Preiss, the Times’ VP of TV and audio, underscored the importance of habit by pointing to The Daily, which sees more than four million downloads per day and a majority of listeners tuning in at least four times a week. (The listenership also trends much younger than the average print subscriber — meaning podcasts like The Daily reach an audience that the Times would love to, eventually, convert into paying subscribers.)

“From a business perspective, we’re interested in figuring out what are habits that we can scale,” Preiss said. “The Daily is a huge habit, but what are audio experiences inside our app — and maybe in this new one — that we see evidence of people not only sampling and exploring but returning to day in and day out, week over week? Because that’s what we know drives willingness to pay. That’s what we’ve learned enables us to start to get those people into a paying relationship with The New York Times.”

The Daily, of course, is currently free and widely distributed, something Dolnick says the Times has “no plans to change anytime soon.” Much like the popular morning newsletter that the Times keeps free as a way to build a daily habit with readers both paying and not, The Daily is more valuable to the Times outside a paywall.

“Over many years, the Times has figured out a way to both have a huge audience of readers and also have a paying audience of readers. We believe that the same thing is possible in audio,” Preiss said. “We believe there’s a way to make sure that this morning’s episode of The Daily is going to all of the places where people listen to audio and reach a huge audience and at the same time, that if there is somebody who is listening to five episodes or listening to something from us every single day, that those people are making their way into our ecosystem and into our pay model.”

The app will also help address a mismatch between the resources the newspaper is devoting to audio journalism and its digital footprint.

“Some of the most important and clarifying and ambitious journalism that The New York Times produces these days happens in audio, but audio is not a part of our digital experience almost at all,” Dolnick said. “You could spend hours a day on our home page and read seemingly everything that our newsroom produces and not come across much of our audio. That has increasingly felt odd to us.”

Preiss added that New York Times app users could open the app “every day” and still miss the Times’ audio offerings there, too. “It’s there, but it’s not a central or signature part of what we present to you,” she said. “That’s out of sync with how we have scaled and grown our audio journalism over the last several years.”

So the Times knows it wants to better incorporate audio into its digital experience. It just isn’t sure the best way to do it quite yet. Alongside this new beta app, there are experiments underway to present audio within the existing New York Times app — such as having journalists read their own work and incorporating the ability to play some podcasts. (You can see an example here.) It’s also serving Daily listeners Audm narrations — like one of Dolnick’s recent favorites, about the composer Nicholas Britell — through existing feeds.

Ultimately, the hope is that behavioral data and feedback gathered via the new app will help the Times get in on the ground floor of paid audio products. “I would say the market for people paying for audio is pretty nascent, with the exception of audio books,” Preiss said. “Certainly there are products that people pay for in the audio space but it’s not a huge market at the moment.”

“It’s a packaging question and it’s a digital question: What’s the best way to present this stuff?” Dolnick added. “But journalistically, the work is already there.”

POSTED     Oct. 20, 2021, 3:37 p.m.
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