The future of journalism: Where does podcasting fit in?

Perhaps we’re now on that cusp with podcasts, for while standalone podcasts continue to do well in the podcast charts (and make up the bulk of both The Guardian and The Atlantic‘s picks for must-listen-to examples from 2016), big name news publishers are getting in on the action. “In a bid to build the New York Times into a habit,” says Max Willens, “the Grey Lady is getting increasingly audible.”

Last year Pew reported that 21% of US adults over the age of 12 listened to some kind of podcast over the previous month, up from 12% in 2010, and that the number of average weekly unique users of the NPR podcasts, for example, numbered around 2.5 million in 2015 (up from 2 million the previous year). Money-wise, the sector is projected to crack $200 million in 2017. In research published at the beginning of the month, Edison reported that there has suddenly been an increase in the percentage of Americans who are familiar with the term ‘podcasting’, and you have to wonder whether it’s the sudden ubiquity of the form among newsrooms that might account for this increase.

It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the bigger picture

That’s all very lovely for podcasters, but it doesn’t tell us a great deal about engagement, not least because – as Ann Friedman says – “podcast analytics are notoriously murky”. It’s hard to track attention in the same way as written journalism can now be monitored, for the simple reason that part of the appeal of listening-based news and programming is the fact that it can be listened to while doing something else, and it can be listened to offline: simply monitoring numbers of downloads or the number of times a podcast was opened doesn’t necessarily correlate with finishing a program.

Having said that, Podcast listeners are a committed bunch. Ann Friedman, writing in Columbia Journalism Review highlights this aspect of podcast listeners: they listen to an average of six podcasts a week and they’re loyal once they find a podcast that resonates with them. If we’re still in a battle for attention (and we are), those six episodes count for a lot. Even if 79% of subscribers to a publication don’t utilize the service, that’s still around 21% who do, and that’s not to say that the majority won’t give it a go, given a little time.

The more we get down into the data, the more complicated the picture about news consumption becomes. With more choices of how to receive information than ever, it’s only logical that we’re going to see splits like the one detailed above. Even in the reading section of these data findings there are numerous ways to break down the percentages even further. Younger people in the US during the election, for example, were more likely to consult national newspapers than their older counterparts. The picture gets complicated again when you start to factor in news consumption habits from elsewhere: a recent study by Neil Thurman at City University in London revealed that 88% of the time that readers spent with national newspapers in the UK was in print.

If you’re wondering how this relates to our theme of podcasting, it’s simple: trying to find a single way to ‘save’ the news sector – even if it’s a solution for a single demographic – is a fool’s errand. What’s likely to make a difference is for publishers to start working out what technologies and platforms best serve their content, and their audiences.

It isn’t the case that podcasts – or whatever innovation is hotly tipped in any given week – are a band aid for a bullet wound, it’s about podcasting being a thread in a larger bandage. What these figures demonstrate is that it’s an end worth pursuing, because whichever way you look at it, 21% of the population is a not insignificant market.

An additional delivery system

Podcasting surely adds another string to a publisher’s bow, but – and this is a point that bears repeating – only if it is consistent with the brand identity and messaging as a whole. It makes sense for the New York Times to be taking podcasts seriously: they’re in the business of quality, well-researched longform journalism and podcasting offers a platform to explore and present that research in a different way, but one that might resonate with its readers. It’s expected of thoughtful periodicals like the Economist and the Atlantic, and smaller ones, such as Prospect in the UK, also utilize them to great effect.

In the context of quality journalism, podcasting is a good match because it has, as the late journalist David Carr said, “the gift of time”.

It’s surely not a coincidence that podcasts frequently appear as a journalistic appendage to subscription-based models of journalism. By broadening the offering, these publications are looking to retain their readers’ custom and keep their attention planted firmly within their brand. Like so many things in life, sometimes it’s the way the message is delivered that makes the difference between information being retained and forgotten, and why should it be any different for news? Here’s Ann Friedman again: “there’s a growing audience thanks to in-ear technology that makes on-demand listening as easy as tuning into traditional radio.”

Depth & intimacy

In addition to creating another means for news consumers to imbibe information, podcasts offer the opportunity for listeners to get an intimate insight into the workings of the newsroom, and the journalistic process. Fostering a personal connection with a newsroom, when these traditional mainstream media newsrooms are being branded ‘elitist’ has never been so important, but by making a connection on a human level the rewards for publishers are significant.

One of the podcasts often credited for the boom in popularity and credibility of the form is Serial, Sarah Koenig and Julia Snyder’s series which examines a single subject over multiple episodes. Witnessing a panel discussion on podcasts, The New Yorker’s Sarah Larson commented that during the series, “Koenig was our guide through all twelve episodes. We learned as she learned”.

Perhaps the sense that the listener is experiencing a story as it’s being discovered makes it more palatable to an increasingly skeptical readership, but we’ve seen that ‘showing your workings’ has been a blueprint for success elsewhere.

Michael Barbaro, a journalist at the New York Times who now hosts many of their podcasts has found the same to be true: “you get a sense of how they go about their reporting. It has the effect of deepening peoples interest in the Times overall,” he told Digiday.

He openly states that the process has been a learning curve for him, and a useful one. Podcasting, he says, is “such a different way of thinking about storytelling, and such a powerful and intimate way to reach people that my eyes were opened to a new journalistic experience in a way that was really refreshing and really compelling… people would tell us about the experience as though we were all in it together”

There’s a focused nuance to spoken-word programming which is somehow dulled when visuals are included and very hard to convey through words alone. Here’s an example of that, again from Sarah Larson’s panel:

Blumberg’s podcast, “StartUp,” chronicles his quest to create a podcasting business. He played an early clip in which he proudly presents his wife with an idea for a name for the company: Orelo, which means “ear” in Esperanto. She laughs and laughs and laughs. “That’s so dumb,” she says, gasping for breath.

Carr said, “What I love about that is, it’s not just a lesson in how twee and dippy you and your partner could be. It’s also a lesson in marriage – she’s laughing at, not with. I just loved that she could go and go and go, as only someone who loves us can.”

Koenig said, “Imagine that scene in print. It could work – but it’s not that.”

“Rebuilding trust in the media is a difficult and delicate process that cannot be quickly solved by any app or tool,” says Tom Trewinnard. Where podcasting in a news context is successful it is because the story the podcast tells is uniquely suited to that medium. We hear so much about shortening attention spans – Alex Spiegel puts it thus: ” ‘Serial’ really made me feel different about how much detail people can handle”. We’ve heard similar sentiments here before, not least from James Cridland when he observed that radio demonstrates on a daily basis that people are happy to surrender forty five minutes of their time to the kind of programming and subjects not frequently seen in print.

The writing style may differ, but the rigor and attention to detail and research that the podcast demands is entirely familiar to anyone who understands journalism. “There’s a freedom inherent in the format that allows journalists and their subjects to reflect, digress and let a story unfurl at length,” says Devon Lee, writing for the CJR. Used for the sake of it, there seems little value in having a podcast (it’s hard to see how the like of The Daily Mail might make the format work, though I am prepared to be proven wrong on that front), but used judiciously when the form best suits the content it’s hard to disagree with Ann Friedman that for media companies, “they present both a do-over and a new opportunity”.

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