What's next for America's favorite news podcast
Posted December 4, 2020 9:02 a.m. EST
CNN — The New York Times' podcast "The Daily" typically airs every day of the week except for Saturdays. But on November 7, a major news event took place that warranted a special Saturday episode. That event also proved to be a turning point in the podcast's history.
"Alex, Maggie, Jim, thank you for joining us on kind of short notice," host Michael Barbaro said at the top to Alexander Burns, Maggie Haberman and Jim Rutenberg, his Times colleagues who have been covering politics and the Trump administration for the last four years. "We now have President-elect Joe Biden and I just want to take a moment and have you reflect on the significance of that call."
That was the opening to a 37-minute episode that covered the week's biggest story — Joe Biden and Kamala Harris' historic win of the White House — but it also served as a coda for a daily news podcast that started at the beginning of the Trump presidency, averaging one million daily downloads by June 2018 and growing to a staggering 4 million daily downloads as Trump's final day in office approaches. According to the Times, "The Daily" has more daily listeners than subscribers to its weekday print product. Its audience also surpasses many news shows on TV.
"I really see election night 2016 as the beginning of season one of The New York Times audio team, and I think of election night 2020 as kind of like the season finale," said Lisa Tobin, executive producer of Times audio.
But with an incoming president who ran on restoring normalcy to a chaotic White House, what remains to be decided is whether listeners will still flock to "The Daily" for deep dives and explanations of the news. On top of that, "The Daily" is facing new competition from other legacy newspapers, digital publications and even Big Tech. Vox, Axios, The Washington Post, The Guardian and Apple all launched news podcasts in recent years. And all of them are competing with NPR, a legacy news organization that helped popularize audio news consumption with programs such as "Morning Edition" and "Up First," among others.
'There are just more stories out there'
The Times has built an audio empire over the last four years. Its recent investments include the acquisition of Serial Productions and the launch of Kara Swisher's "Sway," a "podcast about power and influence." The Times' audio department has grown from three dedicated staffers in 2016 to more than 50 staffers, not including those who produce audio content for the opinion team, which is walled off from the news department.
But The Times' foray into audio content started with a focus on American politics. In August 2016, Barbaro, who was a national political correspondent at the time, announced the launch of "The Run-Up," a podcast that covered that year's presidential election. On "The Run-Up" episode that aired on election night 2016, Barbaro's first words admitted confusion: "It's 3:30 a.m. in the newsroom, and we're in a state of shock. This was not supposed to happen."
Three months months after that, Barbaro introduced "The Daily" in the distribution channels of "The Run-Up" with, "This moment demands an explanation. This show is on a mission to find it."
"The Daily" launched the morning of February 1, 2017 with a 19-minute episode about President Trump's first Supreme Court nominee. Since then, the podcast has focused the majority of its coverage on the Trump administration — the people and its policies. The producers have strayed from that topic on some days, such as an April 2017 episode on Uber CEO Travis Kalanick's downfall and a March 2018 episode on the crisis in Venezuela.
Under the Biden administration, "The Daily" may be able to grow much further beyond its roots in US politics.
"There are just more stories out there," Tobin said. "We have been so consumed by American politics for the last four years."
Several staffers at "The Daily" told CNN Business in the week ahead of the election that they hoped to focus on telling more non-political stories and more international stories in the year ahead.
"International news has always been a bit of a conundrum for certain American publications," Barbaro said. "I think the 20-minute, single-subject format was made for that. You can't tell the story of what it means that the Taliban is about to regain power after 20 years in five minutes."
Paige Cowett and Lisa Chow, supervising producers for "The Daily," hope that covering international stories could lead to bringing new voices on the podcast.
"It's amazing that The Times produces something like 250 pieces of journalism every day, and we just published one episode today," Chow said. "There are so many reporters that we haven't even gotten on the show yet."
Barbaro said he plans on remaining as the host of "The Daily" for the "foreseeable future."
"I think the DNA we've created for the show transcends whoever is president," Barbaro said. "It was certainly forged in the Trump era, but we know from the successful episodes that have nothing to do with the president that the show is highly sustainable no matter who is president."
'The new front page'
"The Daily" reached two million daily downloads in April 2019, The Times reported at NewFronts, the annual event for digital publishers and advertisers. In October 2020, during a panel at Advertising Week New York, The Times revealed it had doubled that average to four million.
On Tuesday, Apple and Spotify released the rankings for their top podcasts of 2020 and "The Daily" is among the top on both services. It is the third most popular podcast globally and second in the US on Spotify. On Apple, "The Daily" is the third most popular podcast in the US.
Part of its growth can be attributed to the overwhelming amount of news, including developments of the pandemic, according to some staff members at The Times who spoke to CNN Business for this story.
When she was on maternity leave, Cowen said she relied almost exclusively on the podcast as her main source of news. Unlike the explosive graphics and shouty pundits on cable news, Barbaro delivers in a measured voice that has become legendary, so much so that it was lampooned in an "SNL" sketch.
"I wanted a conversation that seemed less scary to me," Cowett said. "I needed to consume news, but there was only a version of it that I could handle. I wonder if that was a similar experience that others were having."
Across news sites and TV networks, the pandemic spurred record audiences. The most downloaded episode of "The Daily," so far, is an explainer on COVID-19 from February 27, according to Tobin. Tobin said her team heard from hundreds of listeners who said that it was "the first time that they took the coronavirus seriously."
Tobin said "The Daily" benefits from having a consistently engaged audience. Most listeners of "The Daily" tune in four or five times per week, New York Times CEO Meredith Kopit Levien said during the company's third quarter earnings call in November.
Nicholas Quah, founder of podcast-focused newsletter Hot Pod, told CNN Business that the pandemic may have "triggered an overdrive of more people" listening to "The Daily," but it was an opportunity The Times could seize on by already having a strong product.
"What The Times did is essentially took this 10- to 15-year-old technology at the time and build a premium product and assemble it as the new front page of The New York Times," Quah said. "At this point, it's still unparalleled."
The likening of "The Daily" as "the new front page" is ubiquitous — and debated — among the Times' audio team. Sam Dolnick, an assistant managing editor at The Times, dubbed it as such during a speech at the podcast's one-year anniversary party, according to Quah. The analogy was also used in The Times press release about acquiring Serial Productions.
"I find it deeply flattering," Tobin said. "I think that it speaks to the unexpected role that audio has come to play at The Times. A podcast doesn't become the front page of a newspaper unless a newspaper lets a podcast become the new front page."
To Dolnick, "the new front page" embodies the scale and resonance "The Daily" has achieved. It is agenda-setting for an audience that may never look at The Times in print or online, Dolnick told CNN Business.
But there are some flaws to the analogy. "The Daily" goes deep into one story, with a few headlines rattled off at the end, whereas a traditional print front page of The Times can feature half a dozen or more stories. And sometimes, the topic on "The Daily" is not aligned with the newspaper's front page story.
"I think the reason I chafe at the 'front page of The Times' is because we're not picking the most important story every day," Barbaro told CNN Business. "We're not a newsroom of a thousand people making that decision together. We're a team of people saying this is the most compelling audio story that we think we can tell this day."
'Building a world every time'
"The Daily" has not strayed from its roots as a daily audio show, but it continues to evolve. On election day, November 4, The Daily held its first live show. Barbaro along with Carolyn Ryan, a deputy managing editor, co-hosted a four-hour event where they discussed the election and what could happen. They were joined by Times journalists who frequently appeared on the podcast throughout the past year.
"We are a show that really experiments quite a lot for a show of this scale," Barbaro said. "I think we prize the fact that we constantly try new stuff and are not overly worried about whether or not it might succeed immediately or not."
Each episode of "The Daily" is no longer limited to 20 minutes or less and at times the team has produced more than one per day. The episodes have also changed in scope, from two stories a day to one, and have improved in production quality, which Tobin credited to the larger team.
"If you listen to the show, it's the same curiosity and ambition and desire to get to the heart of questions and ideas," Tobin said. "I think the evolution has just been in the more people that you bring onto the team, the more ambitiously you can answer those questions."
Tobin, who joined The Times in 2016 from WBUR, and is engaged to Barbaro, said about 20 to 25 people work on "The Daily" and each episode "is likely to have had six or seven different sets of hands on it between producers and editors on the team."
The Times audio continues to operate as its own entity within the larger newsroom. A producer will attend The Times' morning masthead meeting to learn what the newspaper will be covering the next day. Those stories may not necessarily be a good fit for "The Daily" because the podcast focuses on narrative storytelling, according to Chow, the supervising producer.
Chow said the editorial strategy of "The Daily" focuses on three elements: plot, character and a burning question. Recent episodes of a sub-brand called "The Field" revolved around how certain groups — seniors in Florida, white suburban women in Ohio and Latinos in Arizona — were voting in the US presidential election.
"We're building a world every time we make an episode. This isn't just here's the facts. We're building the whole context in the world in which the story lives, too," said Alex Young, senior news producer for "The Daily."
That world is focused on Times journalism, as told by Times journalists, with 15-year Times veteran Barbaro as the gateway. While Barbaro has been the subject of a BuzzFeed appreciation post, a Vanity Fair profile, Page Six gossip and most recently a feature in The New York Times Styles section's "Election Distractor," Times staffers do not want "The Daily" to be seen as "The Michael Barbaro Show." Rather, they stress the editing and production that goes into it and the "family" of voices within The Times.
"I think one thing that we do really well is we talk about our reporters as recurring characters on the show and our listeners really not only look forward to hearing from them, but they also really rely on them," Young said.
Over the past year, these "recurring characters" have included Haberman, a White House correspondent, national political reporter Astead W. Herndon, national political correspondent Alexander Burns, congressional editor Julie Hirschfeld Davis and science and health reporter Donald G. McNeil, Jr.
'New York Times minutes'
In a way, "The Daily" acts as a public relations machine for The Times.
"We want you to have as many minutes in your day that are New York Times minutes as we can manage," said Stephanie Preiss, Times vice president of TV and audio. "Increasingly, we want that to be kind of a habit that you have, whatever those moments during the day, and during the week are, we want you to consistently turn to The New York Times."
As a business, "The Daily" not only promotes Times content — encouraging listeners that the best way to support the podcast is by subscribing to The Times — but it also directly generates revenue.
Preiss declined to comment on whether "The Daily" is profitable and how much revenue it generates. But during The Times' third quarter earnings call, Levien pointed to "The Daily" and audio advertising as an "area of continued resilience" amid pandemic-led uncertainty in ad revenue.
The podcast industry overall has gained more interest from advertisers in recent years. Susan Schiekofer, chief digital investment officer at GroupM, the world's largest media buying agency, said her clients have increased their spending on podcasting tenfold over the past year.
Other established media companies might have had this potential windfall in mind when they launched their own news podcasts that compete with "The Daily." In 2018, Vox unveiled "Today, Explained," while The Washington Post and The Guardian introduced "Post Reports" and "Today in Focus," respectively. Apple rolled out "Apple News Today" this year, and Axios launched "Axios Today" over the summer.
Barbaro expressed support for the new entrants in the crowded field of news podcasts and defused any concerns from critics who say that The New York Times has monopolized the media.
"I don't think, when it comes to audio, there's any risk of a single news organization somehow monopolizing the industry. Go on iTunes, go on any of the podcast charts, and you will see thousands of shows, and you will see hundreds of newsrooms making podcasts. They're finding an audience," Barbaro said. "It's difficult for me to understand how The Daily's success is a negative for any other podcast. I think this is kind of like rising tide lifts all boats."
With its reach, "The Daily" can act as a promotional vehicle for converting more subscribers to The Times as the company seeks to meet its goal of 10 million subscriptions by 2025. It also can direct listeners to other Times podcasts, as was the case with "The Run-Up" and "The Daily" in 2017.
Dolnick said the company continues to invest in "The Daily."
"I have no idea what the ceiling for the show is, but there's no reason to think that we're anywhere close to it," Dolnick said.