At the end of 2015, the Washington Post dubbed itself “America’s new publication of record” when its website surpassed the New York Times in online traffic for the first time.
The rivalry between the two newspapers, both models of how to fund newsrooms in an era of digital change and shrinking print advertising revenue, have pushed both to become industry-leading innovators willing to experiment and develop new products that in some cases wouldn’t have been imaginable even five years ago.
Now the two media companies are ramping up their efforts in the fast-growing but highly-competitive world of podcasting, hoping to build a new habit for their news products among highly-sought-after millennials who ignore print and often only read stories when they show up in their social media feed.
Both organizations have experimented off and on with podcasts, but in the past year, both the Times and the Post have been hiring audio producers to help ramp up efforts to launch new and engaging podcasts. It’s no coincidence that both newspapers also lead the industry in paid digital subscriptions and see podcasting as a way to get potential subscribers to start their day with their products.
But that doesn’t mean podcasts aren’t also seen as potential revenue streams in their own right.
With BMW as an initial sponsor, the Times took star political reporter Michael Barbaro off his reporting beat and put him in the podcasting chair full time to launch an ambitious new daily podcast called, not surprisingly, “The Daily.”
“The Daily,” a 15-20 minute podcast aimed at commuters that is made available every morning around 6 a.m., features interviews with newsmakers and Times reporters, as well as shorter audio stories produced with the help of the Times newsroom. It’s the fifth and most ambitious podcast launched by the Times since reshaping its audio division last spring, and already its most popular, jumping to #1 on iTunes the day it launched.
Samantha Henig, the editorial director for audio at the Times, says the nice thing about podcasts is they are uniquely suited to promote and bolster the unbiased nature of the newspaper’s reporting.
“There is a way in which audio is really well positioned to combat the narrative about a liberal media bubble,” Henig said. “When you’re hearing someone’s voice directly, it’s harder to assume media bias is getting in the way.”
Case in point, in the first episode of “The Daily,” Barbaro interviewed Hobby Lobby CEO David Green, whose company won a Supreme Court case over whether family-owned businesses were required to pay for contraception coverage. During the interview, Green accused Barbaro and the “liberal press” of not reporting the 16 other contraceptives the company pays for because it “doesn’t fit your narrative.”
“The beauty of audio is that you’re saying it, and our listeners are hearing it,” Barbaro said.
The Times has found podcasting success drawing on products that are already popular among readers. They partnered with WBUR in Boston to launch the “Modern Love” podcast, which is based on the paper’s Style section column and reportedly receives more than 300,000 downloads a week. Then there are podcasts like “Inside the Times” and “Inside the New York Times Book Review,” which aren’t too difficult to produce and offer loyal readers a peek behind the curtain of how the Times does business.
In the next couple of months, Henig says she expects her audio staff to total about a dozen people, a mix between permanent hires and temporary employees brought on to work on specific projects. That will enable the Times to produce a few more podcasts this year, including the possibility of an afternoon version of “The Daily” and a new limited series that will launch in the spring hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Charles Duhigg.
The Post is also hard at work on increasing its footprint in the podcast world. At the end of January, a team led by Jessica Stahl, the Post’s editor for podcasts, launched “Can He Do That?,” which explores the unique presidency of Donald Trump and what makes it unlike any other that’s come before it.
The show, which is hosted by digital editor Allison Michaels and features a rotating cast of Post reporters, is released every Friday morning, a schedule that has already led to a few logistical challenges, thanks to the fast-paced nature of breaking news during the Trump administration.
The second episode of “Can He Do That?” was planned to be about Mar-a-Lago, the Florida resort Trump often refers to as “the summer White House.” But when Trump’s controversial travel ban caused havoc at airports around the country, Stahl and her team had to pivot quickly to produce a new show analyzing the legality of the order (which several federal judges eventually struck down).
During the show’s third week, top White House aide Kellyanne Conway promoted Ivanka Trump’s product line on cable news on a Thursday. Even though it seemed like the perfect kind of story for the podcast to explore, the deadline was too tight to produce the type of thoughtful analysis Stahl’s team strives for.
“It’s illustrative of the challenge we’re facing,” said Stahl. “There are lots of podcasts that deal with the news of the day. We’re trying to look at the bigger picture.”
Like the Times, Stahl has found success drawing upon the vast resources of the Post’s newsroom, including recruiting some of the company’s most popular names into the podcasting world. Among the most successful have been the interview podcast “Cape Up,” which is hosted by opinion columnist Jonathan Capehart, and “Ciquizza,” a weekly quiz show hosted by popular political writer Chris Cillizza. (Editor’s note: Cillizza recently left the Post to join CNN Politics.)
“We wanted to take some of our big, popular personalities and put them in situations that were unique,” Stahl said, noting that a weekly format allows busy reporters the flexibility to experiment with podcasting.
Stahl has done it all with basically just one full-time producer, success that could be replicated at newsrooms across the country looking to tailor their popular local content to fit a new, emerging format.
But like the Times, the Post is increasing their audio staff, with their sights set on launching a couple of new products by the end of the year and growing their podcast audience with an eye towards monetization.
One area Stahl is watching is the emerging trend of interactive devices like Google Home and Amazon Alexa.
“We’re still figuring it out, but it seem like an obviously space we should be in,” she said, noting that the Post has an interactive news quiz running on Alexa and experimented with providing answers to questions during the Olympics. “I’ll admit, I was a late adopter, but these devices are amazing.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at [email protected]