Print journalism under siege: podcasts to the rescue?

This Kat takes journal subscriptions seriously. How seriously? Well, Mrs. Kat says that he would likely win his town’s award for the resident with the most paid subscriptions to journalistic content. For sure, this Kat has followed with ever-increasing concern, tinged by moments of incipient depression, the two-decade downward trajectory of print media in the face of (often free) on-line contents.

This Kat is no Luddite. There is complementary space for both on-line blogs, such as IPKat, and traditional journalistic content. The problem is that the IPKat has a simple cost structure, namely none, except for potential lost opportunity costs facing each member of the team. But newspapers and journals do not have that luxury. Unless they have a Daddy Warbucks in the background ready and able to cover losses, financial viability remains a constant challenge in the face of the availability of free on-line contents.

And so, the on-going struggle--how to attract paid subscribers? One of the most interesting recent attempts to do so has been to try and establish a notable presence in a different medium, and then to leverage that position to facilitate increased paid subscriptions in the original print product. This Kat has been particularly struck by the efforts of print icons to gain a foothold in the podcast space for that purpose.

Most notably, perhaps, is the daily podcast offered by The New York Times, entitled “The Daily” [Merpel says: “Who says that lack of distinctiveness in a name can’t  be valuable”?] Established in 2017, the podcast, which focuses daily on a single topic, is readied for listening at 6:00 am, New York time, and it has become a podcast superstar. The credits read out at the end of each Friday’s program reveal a double-digit number of staff engaged in its daily production.

But their efforts appear to be rewarded. As described by “TimeOut”, The Daily--
…has gained an almost cult-like following thanks to host Michael Barbaro, who interviews the publication’s journalists about the top stories of the day. Barbaro’s soothing tone and his ability to truly break down an issue in 20 to 30 minutes have catapulted him to fame.
It is far from obvious that The New York Times would master the podcast medium, as it had stumbled in earlier attempts to do so. The first lesson is that print journalism can master other content media. The commercial problem for The Daily is that it is available free of charge and there is only a small amount of advertising on the program. Add to that the fact the substantial staff dedicated to its production. So where is the business proposition?

The answer seems to be that the podcast is being explicitly used to solicit new subscribers for the newspaper. This is done by periodic (several times a week) appeals to listeners directly within the program (each episode is broken up at about its half-way point). That itself poses a challenge: How to attract the listener’s attention, which is being diverted from the day's program to soliciting subscribers.

It does so by each time engaging one of the members of the Times' staff to make the pitch to listeners. The pitch usually goes something like this.
I am ABC and my job with at the Times or the Daily is XYZ. Listeners ask how they can support The Daily. The answer is by subscribing to the Times, since it is the Times and its staff that is the engine that drives The Daily.
Keep in mind that the reach of the podcast is world-wide, such that a subscription may well be for the on-line version, thereby providing a partial answer of how to get persons to pay for on-line contents.

Using the podcast to attract subscribers to the newspaper suggests that the podcast attracts listeners not heretofore subscribers. If a person becomes a regular listener to the podcast, she or he will hear the appeal at least several times a week. Each time, the appeal is personalized as it is made by one of the podcast’s own team. The success of the appeal rests on a combination of guilt and listener satisfaction (“I enjoy The Daily, but it is free; not to do so is free-riding, which is not right; helping the newspaper helps the podcast, and vice versa”). Voilà—the podcast has come to the service of increasing the newspaper’s base of subscribers.

This Kat has not seen any data evaluating the success of this cross-platform branding. However, he can point to the following. First, the appeal for subscribers on The Daily has been continuing for several years, suggesting that the newspaper believes that it has on-going commercial value. Second, the newspaper is rolling out additional podcasts containing a similar appeal for subscribers, pointing to satisfaction with the scheme. Third, The New Yorker magazine, on its own podcast, has adopted an appeal for subscribers that is strikingly similar to the used on The Daily.

All of this suggests that we will see more of this in future as the battle for subscribers and financial viability continues.

By Neil Wilkof

Picture on upper right is in the public domain.

Picture on lower left is by JKizzieHumanities and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Print journalism under siege: podcasts to the rescue? Print journalism under siege: podcasts to the rescue? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Thursday, January 14, 2021 Rating: 5


  1. This was an interesting post which I think highlights one of the (several) roles podcasts can be seen to play in the broader digital media ecosystem. My own Master's research (unpublished, but working on it) looked at similar calls for support in the realm of independent podcasting (which is to say, not associated with big publications like the New York Times). A lot of creators in that sphere also use their platforms to promote other work of theirs, like books, live shows, or merchandise.

    With respect to print journalism, though, I wonder if it might be too optimistic to see podcasting as coming to the rescue of a struggling industry. I would note that the examples cited (the New York Times and New Yorker) can leverage international reach, recognisable brands, and already large subscriber bases. Smaller publications without these advantages may see some benefit from podcasting cross-promotion, but I think there is an open question as to how much this strategy scales if you're not regularly on the front page of the Apple Podcasts app. The "winner-takes-most" phenomenon is widespread in tech; I suspect it may operate here as well. (And then there are the many local newspapers that have already been felled by the digital transition and venture capital which don't seem to be coming back.)


    Cody Rei-Anderson
    PhD Candidate, Victoria University of Wellington

  2. Cody, thanks for your perceptive comments. Regarding the advantage of having a recognizable brand, I agree with you, but in a nuanced way. Fifteen years ago I was arguing that strong brands would enable their owners to implement a paywall and the like for on-line contents. My point in the blog is that podcasts may help print increase subscriptions for print even for those journals that do not have the clout of The New York Times. Speaking for myself, I resisted subscribing to the Times until I was won over by The Daily. Was I a consumer universe of one? Probably not. Are podcasts a panacea? Probably not. Will they help? Probably yes. To what extent? We watch and see and welcome PhD candidates such as yourself to help us understand better what is going on.


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