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May 17, 2019updated 23 Aug 2022 7:37pm

Podcasts now ‘core part’ of news publisher’s offering, but Guru-Murthy warns too many would be ‘boring’

By Charlotte Tobitt

Podcasts have moved from being a “sideshow” into a “core part” of what publishers do, with audio now a key tool for expanding a newsbrand’s reach beyond print/online and engaging with a younger audience.

The BBC’s Brexitcast, the Guardian’s Today in Focus, The Intelligence by the Economist and the FT News Briefing are frequent chart-toppers in Apple’s podcast charts with the Times, Telegraph, Sky News, Spectator and Empire magazine also producing popular titles.

On a regional scale Reach and JPI Media won €500,000 (£434,000) from Google in March to jointly launch Laudable, which will develop new audio programmes in regional newsrooms and identify how to make them financially sustainable.

Speaking before the Google grant was revealed, Reach’s chief audience officer, David Higgerson, told Press Gazette the “primary motivation” of the company’s gradual move into podcasts was their “ability to stick with somebody for longer”.

Joining the local audio drive, the Kent Messenger Group recently launched a daily podcast round up of its biggest stories to give readers “another way to keep up to date”.

But Channel 4 News anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy has warned that too many people jumping on the bandwagon “would just be boring”.

‘Threat and opportunity’

The Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2018 described podcasts as “both a threat and an opportunity for existing broadcasters” as the medium’s low barriers for entry – low cost, small teams and open platforms – have enabled a wider set of newsbrands to enter the field.

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Report author Nic Newman told Press Gazette the move from podcasts as a “sideshow” to a “core part” of what publishers do has resulted from a “magic” combination of better connectivity, better smartphones and improved headphones to use with them.

This means “people can access media now much more easily wherever they are”.

In Newman’s Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions report for 2019, 75 per cent of “digital leaders” who responded said they believed audio news content such as podcasts would become a more important part of their content and commercial strategies in 2019.

Newman said audio is “going to be a part of the package that you need” to create loyal audiences, whether with a view to making profit, working on a cost recovery basis or simply as a way to grow print or digital subscriptions.

“People increasingly expect it,” he said. “Certainly young people are consuming a lot of podcasts. So if you’re looking to build loyalty with users, podcasts are a really good way of doing that because it’s not fleeting attention.”

Market is becoming crowded

He added that podcasts – like any change in media trends – had the potential “for a very few people to make a significant advance”, and that those who were first in were “much more likely to get the majority of that market”.

“For people who are coming later now, it’s going to be much harder because the market’s becoming much more crowded,” Newman said, giving the example of daily podcasts pioneered by the New York Times two years ago.

“There’s a limited amount of people who are going to access those and there’s already some good offerings in the market – and you’re not just competing with UK publishers.”

Despite this, the Guardian’s head of video and audio Christian Bennett told Press Gazette he believes there is “still a lot of space” in the daily podcast market.

“The main thing with our podcast is we just have to concentrate on doing what we do well,” he said. “I suspect our audience is very different to a lot of other audiences and we just have to continue to try and be the best for the Guardian audience.”

The Guardian’s daily podcast Today in Focus, which launched in November, quickly became the publisher’s most popular of its ten titles, with almost a quarter of all its listens three months later.

Bennett added that having access to the Guardian newsroom helps it stand out and that a crowded market “is not something we’re particularly worried about”.

He said the daily podcast gave the Guardian the opportunity to build a “different relationship” with a certain set of its readers, who are generally younger and who can spend more time with the brand outside their normal newspaper reading opportunities.

It also has the space to highlight stories “that don’t necessarily get the biggest audience” online or in print.

Bennett said a podcast may not be a crucial part of the package for every newsbrand, however, as “it’s actually quite hard to do”.

But, he added: “If you do it the rewards are there because I think you do get a new audience. You can get a big new audience if you do some interesting stories.”

Reach launched the Mirror Football and Liverpool FC-focused Blood Red podcasts three years ago, and stepped up its podcast strategy across the company at the start of 2018 “with a view to experimenting”.

Higgerson said the publisher, which also owns the Mirror, Express and Star daily national titles, is now “learning from its experiments to be more consistent and make them more part of day-to-day life”.

Asked if he thought podcasts had become an important part of the future for publishers, Higgerson said: “I think audio, definitely. How podcasts evolve, I don’t know. But if we work on the assumption that what happens in America happens here about two years later then podcasts are definitely a big opportunity for us.”

He added: “I can see podcasts being an important part of what we do, not necessarily in terms of scale of listeners but certainly in terms of engagement with those listeners.”

Reach now has about 30 podcasts, of which about ten are weekly or regular.

Most recently, the Liverpool Echo launched No Really, I’m Fine, in which its journalists speak about mental health issues, and the Unbelievable True Crime Podcast which will feature stories from its journalists around the UK.

The publisher has also appointed two people to work in its central digital newsroom, working with staff at both nationals and regionals to develop new podcast ideas and ensure their skills are up to scratch in what Higgerson called a “statement of intent”.

A way of reaching younger audiences

A world away from micro-targeting local audiences, Guru-Murthy’s Ways to Change the World podcast, which launched last year as a space for longer conversations with public figures who have “big ideas”, has been a viral hit.

The news anchor’s in-depth conversation with actor and activist Jameela Jamil, who took on the Kardashians over body image, clocked up 20m views across clips on Facebook and Twitter, Youtube (where a video of the whole podcast is uploaded each week) and downloads of the podcast itself.

Other guests have included author Matt Haig, comedian Simon Amstell, and Chuka Umunna MP just days after he left the Labour party to start a new political party in the centre ground.

Guru-Murthy (pictured with Jamil) told Press Gazette carrying out a long-form interview was “time consuming”, adding: “You can’t busk an hour-long conversation quite the way you can a three-minute one… but it’s always rewarding.”

He went on: “What’s been interesting is you don’t necessarily have to try too hard. If you just have a really intelligent conversation in which people are frank and candid and basically try to tell the truth, then people really want to listen to that.”

Asked whether podcasts had become essential for newsbrands to reach younger audiences in particular, Guru-Murthy said Ways to Change the World was a way of “bringing them into what it is we’re doing on Channel 4 News”.

“Yes, people have to do this stuff,” he said. “But I don’t think everybody should do a podcast because that would just be boring.”

He added: “I don’t think it’s just podcasts.  I think it’s every platform on which young people are finding their content. You’ve got to think of a way of being there and work out whether you’re wanted there.”

Guru-Murthy said that he thought both his podcast that of Channel 4 News political editor Gary Gibbon, called Politics: Where Next?, worked because they contain the same DNA as the news programme, which has “a relatively small group of quite identifiable people” and “a particular type of curiosity that goes through everything we do”.

“Whether that’s the same for everybody else I don’t know, because I think some newsbrands are so big and amorphous that it’s quite hard to identify what it is I’m choosing.”

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Commercial strategies

The Guardian’s Today in Focus features three ad breaks and launched with a sponsorship deal with audio equipment company Bose.

“We’ve got a really good offering for the audience so quality advertisers should be working with us,” Bennett said, although he could not confirm if Today in Focus is in profit.

Reach has “had successes” in monetising its podcasts, Higgerson said, with existing ad clients becoming sponsors and new ones coming on board.

“What’s really excited us is the number of local clients who have expressed an interest in getting involved in podcasts which are connected with their town or city,” he added.

“In some ways, for clients who are used to advertising with us in print for brand reasons, podcasting is another way of getting your brand association in the local area across in a really new and different way.”

Reach has programmatic partnerships in place with its technology providers, which means ads can be inserted into a podcast after editing for better audience targeting, while it has held live events for some of its football podcasts to both raise revenue and engagement.

Guru-Murthy revealed that Channel 4 News still has no commercial strategy in place for Ways to Change the World, despite its success.

“We just did it to see whether people wanted it and it turns out they did,” he said, adding that he was sure the broadcaster would think about how to make it a commercial proposition over the coming year.

Podcasts vs pivot to video?

Despite the positive outlook for those experimenting in news podcasts, Newman did warn that publishers “need to be a little bit cautious”.

He referred to the “pivot to video” trend, which ended with publishers struggling to recoup sufficient ad revenues through social media platforms.

“There’s a huge marketing and loyalty-building aspect to podcasts because they are so personal, because you spend time with them in a way that you don’t with digital media,” Newman said.

“People hoped video was going to be like that, but it wasn’t because the context was much more transitory.”

Higgerson agreed that Reach has seen a higher completion rate – people listening/watching to the end – for audio than for video, adding: “I’m glad we didn’t [pivot to video] because it obviously hit the publishers that did.”

Newman added: “Audio is substantially different because audio is a thing you can do while you’re doing other things.

“Video’s problem was that it essentially consumes all of your attention so it competes with all of these other things that are going on.”

Picture: Channel 4 News/Youtube

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