How newspapers are utilizing podcasts to grow their audiences and revenue

Editor’s note: This piece was reported while the author was a master’s of journalism student at the University of King’s College. He subsequently began to work with the Winnipeg Free Press as a summer reporter.

 

You hit play and instantly an upbeat indie rock jam is in your ear for 12 seconds, before its levels lower, letting the soft warm voices of Erin Lebar and Jen Zoratti welcome you to Bury the Lede.

The podcast plays every Monday afternoon. On each episode, the two women to talk about arts, pop culture and life in Winnipeg. The show, which turned two years old in April, was born out of frustration.

Lebar and Zoratti, who both work for the Winnipeg Free Press as a multimedia producer and a columnist, respectively, sit next to each other in the newsroom. For months, subjects they wanted to cover dropped to the bottom of the content food chain, so the two settled for discussing these topics with each other while working on their given assignments.

Until they had an epiphany: start a podcast.

According to Lebar and Zoratti, the Free Press’s readership is primarily “(baby) boomer or older,” and the paper struggles to draw in people between the ages of 18 and 30.

Eighty-eight per cent of Canadian millenials are reading newspapers every week, according to the 2019 Newspapers 24/7 Report, mostly off of their phones. The 2018 Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute says that 48 per cent of people, across 22 countries (including Canada), between the ages of 18-34 listen to podcasts monthly.

Attracting younger readers was part of their pitch to Free Press editor-in-chief Paul Samyn. Plus, Lebar and Zoratti, who are not beat reporters, said they could establish their own brand under the Free Press banner. “Like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets, but cuter,” they told the marketing team.

The duo estimated that episodes should run between 20-25 minutes — the typical commute in Winnipeg. But above all else, the show had to be accessible on iTunes and outside of the Free Press paywall, allowing non-subscribers to listen to the podcast on their own time.

This was the New York Times’ approach with its podcast, The Daily, which first aired on Feb. 1, 2017. A year later, the show was downloaded over 200 million times, and was Apple’s most downloaded podcast in 2018. Three-quarters of the show’s audience are 40 years old or younger, said Mark Thompson, New York Times Co. president and CEO, in a Q4 2018 conference call.

CBC and Global are among the latest Canadian outlets to add a daily affairs podcast to their respective programming. But while it may be too early to tell if the move will help attract and keep younger audiences, newspapers like the Winnipeg Free Press, and even the Hamilton Spectator, are just a few of the Canadian publications riding podcasts’ popularity, aspiring to generate revenue through podcast advertising and (hopefully) newspaper subscriptions.

Rise and fall

The decline of print is a story journalists have heard for nearly 20 years. But it’s a convoluted history that involves advances in technology and rough economic times.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the newspaper industry enjoyed its most profitable years, with advertising revenue and circulation hitting peaks.

During that same time, however, came the Dot.com boom. Craigslist, founded in 1995, is often blamed for killing print classified ads and in Canada, paid circulation of daily newspapers saw a steep decline. Fast-forward 20 years, technology and the internet are more integral to everyday life, and companies are opting to advertise through Google and Facebook, which are making billions in digital ad revenue. And the idea that you could simply trade print dollars for digital dollars has proven to be a myth.

The 2008 recession allowed newspapers to be bought on the cheap by large firms such as New Media/Gatehouse. Newspapers have become disposable businesses to diversify business portfolios, and, in many cases, if papers aren’t making money, cuts are made for profit. But the money saved is rarely reinvested into journalism.

As newspapers began crumbling, the internet and technology began changing audio in a positive way.

In 2008, the first smartphones were released, allowing people to download audio files on the go, such as the first podcast episode of NPR’s This American Life. Smartphones allowed the podcast industry to grow slightly in popularity, but, according to Christopher Byrne, a lecturer at Cornell University who studies podcasts and digital storytelling, the shows were very “do-it-yourself,” and there weren’t enough analytics to attract big advertisers.

Although, Byrne said, there was enough to know which demographics were listening. This allowed radio stations like NPR to use podcasts to attract younger audiences.

Then, on Oct. 3, 2014, NPR released the first episode of a podcast called Serial. Hosted by former Baltimore Sun journalist Sarah Koenig, the show was a classic whodunit that investigated a Baltimore murder case from 1999, where the man who was convicted still claimed he was innocent 15 years later.

Serial became the fastest podcast to reach five million downloads and streams in Apple’s history. The industry’s popularity and profitability skyrocketed.

Though, nobody knew just how profitable podcasts could be until December 2017, when Apple released iTunes analytics. The analytics allow advertisers to see downloads and demographics, as well as where listeners skipped ahead and the fact that 90 per cent of listeners finish episodes.

According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, U.S. podcast ad revenue was $314 million dollars in 2017, and it predicts that revenue will increase to $659 million by 2020.

Teaming-up

Bryan Chester, a professor at the University of Missouri’s school of journalism, is often consulted by newspapers in the state about digital money-making opportunities. In an interview, Chester said podcasts come up often, but “more as another tool in the toolkit for publishers.”

He said the topic only comes up when it regards generating revenues through sponsorships, or as an addition to a digital package for subscribers.

In other words, newspapers do not see podcasts as a saviour. More like another branch to their product that can generate digital — and hopefully subscription — revenue.

“Legacy media — specifically newspapers — is at a disadvantage in print, but we are on a level playing field online,” Chester said. “By using multimedia … to enhance the reader experience, is one way to drive more traffic to your site and sell more advertising.”

The catch for many newspapers, however, is time and money. Shows like The Daily are outliers when it comes to newspaper podcasts, because the New York Times can afford to have teams of people whose job is solely producing a show.

For many local papers such as The Coast, a small alt-weekly newspaper in Halifax, producing a podcast is an addition to the staff’s primary responsibilities of producing a newspaper.

The Coast has 13 people listed as staff and the publication often needs freelance pieces to fill its pages. As a free publication, it depends on print and digital advertising revenues, but it also runs many events throughout the year, such as Halifax’s famous Burger Week, to help financially.

Last summer, the alt-weekly celebrated its 25th anniversary. As part of that, it launched a 25-episode — technically 26, because it made a holiday episode — weekly podcast that would cover important events and stories that happened in Halifax throughout its 25 years. It was called 25 for 25.

“It’s sexy media,” publisher Christine Oreskovich said in an interview. She said the entire staff listens to podcasts and it was something they had wanted to try for a while. This happened to be a good opportunity for a trial run.

Oreskovich, a frequent listener of The Daily, said it sounds like Michael Barbaro (host) is the only one doing it. In reality, there are approximately 20 people on that team.

“They make it sound effortless,” Oreskovich said, “and it’s not.

“It’s overwhelming how much work it was, that people were doing outside their time.”

The premise of 25 for 25 meant that episodes had to be long, ranging between 48 minutes to nearly two hours. In the end, Oreskovich said The Coast spent $18,000 on recording fees alone.

The Coast does not disclose profit statements.

Oreskovich said selling the podcast to advertisers was difficult because, “you’re starting from scratch,” and the show had to be evergreen — something people can listen to whenever they want and not miss anything. She added that advertisers also wanted a certain amount of control, in terms of what type of content they would be associated with.

Were The Coast to produce another show in the future, Oreskovich said they would do things differently. A huge part of that stems from 25 for 25 being an anniversary podcast, as opposed to a weekly current events podcast, like The Message produced by the Hamilton Spectator.

To produce a future show, however, Oreskovich said they would need funding for more staff and to cover recording fees.

“It’s really hard to go, ‘OK, we’re going to have a whole branch of podcast staff.’ Where do you find the time and budget? I don’t know.”

Pay dirt

Nearly five years ago, one reporter south of the border was beginning to catch on to newspapers’ podcasting potential.

In fall 2014, Mike Caplan, a lawyer for an Atlanta, Ga. law firm, had just agreed to take on a case pro bono. The case was about a young man from rural Georgia, Justin Chapman, who may have been wrongfully convicted of arson and murder.

Bill Rankin has been a reporter for over 30 years, most of which were spent working the legal affairs beat for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. At that time, Rankin had spent weeks covering a trial focusing on 12 Atlanta school officials caught in a test cheating scandal, when Caplan called Rankin to meet in his office.

“I was all in, I was fascinated,” Rankin said in an interview.

Caplan forwarded “thousands of pages of documents” from the Chapman case to Rankin in a zip drive. Rankin said he read the documents “over the next month or so,” during breaks of the trial he was covering.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 3, 2014, NPR released the first episode of Serial.

Rankin’s managing editor went to Tennessee to visit his in-laws over Thanksgiving, when his son, who’s a public defender, suggested he listen to Serial.

When the managing editor returned, having listened to the first season of Serial, he asked Rankin’s editor if there was a similar case that they could cover. Rankin told them he had been reviewing the Chapman case.

It was settled.

Rankin said he felt overwhelmed because neither he nor the paper had ever attempted a project like this. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution hired a woman from an Atlanta radio station to help with production, including teaching Rankin about audio. The podcast was named Breakdown.

“I still can’t believe we actually did it, because we didn’t really know what we were doing,” Rankin said. “I’m as proud of that first season as anything I’ve ever done.”

Ironically, the show was not popular after the first season. The show had a fairly low number of downloads, ran no ads and had no sponsors.

The second season changed that. They chose to cover a national story about a father who had left his son in the car, resulting in the child’s death. During the trial, facts about the father, Justin Ross Harris, were revealed and it turned out he had been sexting other women and cheating on his wife, taking their son along with him.

“Everyone thought it was a terrible mistake at first,” Rankin said. “But when they found out who he was, everybody turned against him.”

Over the course of season two, Breakdown became a top-five iTunes podcast, surpassing Serial — although that show was not live at the time.

“The funny thing was, people who were listening to the second season, were going back and listening to season one,” Rankin said. “We had huge traffic … and were able to sell some ads in the second season.”

Breakdown is preparing to launch its seventh season. For the show’s sixth season, Rankin and editor Kevin Riley covered a double-murder trial. Riley was chosen for the jury in the Fulton County Superior Court case and served as its foreman. The show took listeners into the secret deliberations of the jury.

Season six won the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel award, which recognizes efforts to foster the public’s understanding of law through media.

Sign off

“So what are you working on?” Zoratti asks Lebar in the final minutes of their weekly show.

“I am doing a feature for the Festival de Voyageurs’ 15th anniversary,” Lebar replied. “It’s a big milestone for them. So I’ve been talking to past volunteers, current staff, past executive directors. Trying to get a picture of how things were, and how they are now, and what their plans are for the future.”

The conversation transitions into Zoratti’s upcoming column about acupuncture.

“I’m sure you have somebody in your life who swears by acupuncture for, like, pain relief in joints, muscles,” she said. “But it’s kind of emerged as a beauty trend, and a handful of places offer it in Winnipeg. So I went to go try it out.”

The two plug their social media, then Zoratti says, “You can find everything we write at winnipegfreepress.com.

“We’ll see you next week.”