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May 31, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:22am

The Economist considers audio paywall as podcasts reach 3m people a month

By Bron Maher

The Economist’s monthly podcast listeners are now more than double its print subscriber base – and the audio products are paying their way despite being outside the publication’s paywall.

But The Economist’s director of podcasts John Prideaux (pictured) told Press Gazette that offering may not be free forever.

And he explained how it came to be that a publication known for its lack of bylines made it big in a medium all about personalities.

[Read more: Data suggests UK is on ‘cusp of a golden age for podcasts’]

Since joining in 2004, Prideaux has been political correspondent, homepage editor, Brazil correspondent and US editor at The Economist. All of those were text-heavy jobs: how had he found it shifting gears to oversee audio content?

“I thought it would be more of a gear shift than it has been, actually.”

Much of what makes for a good Economist story, Prideaux said, makes for a good Economist podcast. He identified “good reporting”, “striking analysis” and “clarity” as some of those ingredients, adding that in a podcast there was “more room for colour”.

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“It’s kind of a natural medium for The Economist. What we do in the magazine is to blend reporting and opinion.”

The Economist has a long history in podcasts, relatively speaking. It launched its first named podcast, The World Ahead, in 2006: episodes were loaded onto iPods in Apple stores as demo content.

Money Talks, The Economist’s oldest continuing podcast, started the next year, just as the publisher began regularly using actors to record audio editions of its articles for subscribers.

Economist podcasts ‘got serious’ in 2016

But Prideaux said The Economist “got serious” about podcasting in 2016, explaining: “We hoped that the podcast would reach a bigger audience, an audience that maybe isn’t listening to us or reading us at the moment…

“But I would say that the bigger driver here was a journalistic one – we just wanted to give it a try, and it seemed to work really well. We discovered that we were quite good at this – we didn’t know that in advance, you never do.”

[Read more: Ranked – The most popular news podcasts in America]

The investment in podcasting has been assisted by enthusiasm from above.

“Zanny, the editor, has gotten really into podcasting.”

Economist editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes interviewed Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky from his war room in Kyiv in March – an interview The Economist published as a podcast.

The company launched its flagship podcast, The Intelligence, in 2019. Originally hosted from London by molecular-physicist-turned-journalist Jason Palmer, in March the show added New York-based Jon Fasman as a co-host.

Before The Intelligence launched The Economist employed about seven people to work on its podcasts full time, and it hired five more to run the new show. The publication now employs approximately 30 staff exclusively on its podcast work (The Economist’s overall staff number is around 318, according to its annual report for 2021).

The Intelligence gets approximately 350,000 downloads an episode. In a month, Prideaux said the podcast can now reach as many as two million listeners. During peak coverage of the invasion of Ukraine, the figure hit two and a half million.

Across its entire podcast stable, The Economist is now being listened to by more than three million people a month. That compares against 1.2 million print subscribers – while its digital circulation in the second half of 2021 was 995,228, according to its ABC report. Had they found there was a difference between the podcast audience and the print readership?

“I think there’s quite a lot of overlap,” Prideaux said. “One of the things about podcasting is the data is harder to parse.”

Podcasts bring ‘what’s special about The Economist’ to new audiences

Surveys of listeners, though, have suggested the listeners are demographically similar to the readers, if somewhat younger and more international.

“The podcast is quite self-consciously highbrow. We don’t sort of think… let’s dumb it down for broadcast.”

Instead, Prideaux said, they wanted to bring “what’s special about The Economist” to the medium. 

And what was it that was special about The Economist?

“Oh, so I have a lot to say on this,” said Prideaux.

“I think the fact that we have quite a large staff but we’re not trying to crank out 150 stories a day gives us time to do long reporting, spend quite a lot of time writing and thinking about our stories, talking to other colleagues, trying to come up with an argument.”

He also cited the publication’s expansive coverage area – “anything that happens apart from sport or celebrities, we’re interested in. And occasionally those also” – and its absence of bylines, which he said fed into a culture of collaboration.

Traditionally The Economist’s journalists do not write under their own names. That tradition has not carried across to its podcasts, which are presented by named hosts and feature contributions from named Economist correspondents.

“Because we have no bylines, it’s very hard for our readers to get to know some of the people who write the stuff that they read”, Prideaux said.

“I mean, it’s a bit of a surprise – some of our people, who are on the podcast, they suddenly get not exactly recognised, but internet famous in a way that is new for a place with no bylines. And some of them find that a bit alarming.”

He recounted a visit paid to London by Intelligence host Fasman, with whom Prideaux previously co-hosted The Economist’s US politics podcast, Checks and Balances.

“I had a dinner with a bunch of friends who like [Checks and Balances]. And it was almost a little bit alarming for us because they knew all sorts of things about his life, which he’d talked about on his podcast. Like: ‘Oh, I’m really sorry to hear your basement flooded!’”

Prideaux had deliberately tried to make sure the podcasts had rapport and personality, however.

“With the best podcasts, you get so used to listening to the hosts and you enjoy the rapport between them, that you wind up listening – while you’re at home, unloading the dishwasher – even if the subject they’re talking about isn’t one where you go ‘Oh, I really need to know about that’.”

[Read more: Publishers reveal how podcast pennies are now turning into big money]

As things stand, those millions of dishwasher unloaders can listen to The Economist’s podcasts for free – despite the robust paywall around the rest of its content. How come?

“I think we’re going to start experimenting with that. But how come – there’s a bunch of reasons.”

He noted that: “It’s obviously more complicated than putting a paywall on a website.”

But he also said he expected a move over the next decade toward paywalled podcasts, likening their current free availability to the news industry’s belated deployment of website paywalls.

Most podcasts associated with news websites remain un-paywalled, with one notable exception being that of the otherwise paywall-free Il Post in Italy.

The Economist has some breathing room to figure out its podcast paywall strategy, at least. Prideaux confirmed to Press Gazette that the shows pay for themselves with the advertising revenue they bring in.

In the meantime, its many journalists have the luxury of getting their work outside the paywall and in front of more people.

“The Economist has this huge network of correspondents all over the world”, Prideaux said, “and I’m not sure we’ve shown that off.”

Picture: The Economist

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