The Guardian‘s daily news podcast Today in Focus has marked five years of providing a deeper take on the issues of the day.
Today in Focus, which topped 250 million listens in November, features many documentary and narrative episodes, often tying in with other Guardian journalism and tapping into the expertise of its correspondent network. Other episodes focus on more up-to-the-minute breaking news and analysis.
Today in Focus deliberately had a “documentary sensibility” from the start, head of audio Nicole Jackson told Press Gazette, with the team avoiding a roundtable discussion format. Instead, she explained, they “really wanted to base it in storytelling”.
Joint lead presenter Michael Safi added: “We so believe in the style of show that we are – this idea of being able to take listeners around the world, tell these narrative stories, to move people.”
Why increased competition is a good thing
The New York Times’ The Daily is generally recognised as a trendsetter in the news podcast world, arriving in January 2017.
As well as The Guardian’s Today in Focus launching in November 2018, subsequent arrivals in the daily podcast market at major publishers have included: FT News Briefing (launched in October 2018), The Economist’s The Intelligence (January 2019), The Evening Standard’s The Standard formerly known as The Leader (September 2019), the BBC’s Newscast (evolved from Brexitcast in February 2020), The Times and Sunday Times with Stories of our Times (March 2020), and Global’s The News Agents (August 2022).
Jackson told Press Gazette she finds the increased level of competition now “really exciting”.
“A, I think there’s space for lots of different types of podcasts,” she said. “B, it just shows me that people are really willing to engage with audio as a medium, and that is really important for us. I think it would be worrying if we just sort of flatlined over the last five years. So I see the growth as important.
“I think that it also makes sure that we all stay on our toes and we’re not complacent with our stories or with our listeners. It also really forces us to always ask ourselves both on Today in Focus but also across all the podcasts ‘why are we doing this story? Is this the right story for The Guardian to be telling and also how can we tell it in a Guardian way?'”
Safi said asking these questions has given them “a stronger sense of what we are and how we do that day in and day out.
“And I think it’s that ability to move people, to put them in someone else’s shoes, that I think is pretty unique to narrative podcasting. I don’t think many other kinds of news podcasts can come close to matching that.”
Today in Focus early episodes ‘still stand up’
Jackson told Press Gazette about the early pilot phase: “We knew quite quickly that we wanted to make it international. I think that was because we felt like it would be distinctive compared to some of the other things that were already on the market. And I think we also thought it just made total sense given how many incredible journalists we have around the world – we’re a 24-hour news operation and so why wouldn’t we make the most of that?
“And then we also started to think about how we wanted to tell the news. And again, we quite quickly realised that we didn’t want to be a roundtable or a discussion podcast, that we really wanted to base it in storytelling. And so it had a documentary sensibility to it and that came obviously from all the talented producers and from the hosts but also from things like sound design and scoring.”
The first episode of Today in Focus, about the election of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, still stands up to all the “key qualities” that the podcast has stood for over the past five years, Jackson said.
“Even though I think we’ve grown and changed in many ways, it also actually is still really good showcasing of what we want that show to be, which is international reporting, lots of tape from the field with Tom Phillips, who is a journalist, and the narrative journey that we took the listener on,” Jackson said.
Asthana was succeeded in July 2021 by Guardian international correspondent Safi and Observer reporter Nosheen Iqbal as the podcast’s new lead presenters. The team now totals 14, including the two main hosts, executive producers, producers and sound designers.
Safi told Press Gazette he felt the podcast had created a forum for “so much of the best storytelling material [that] never makes it into the story… the way a place looks and smells, the way that a person’s voice can often tell you so much about who they are and what they’ve experienced.”
When he first took on the role, the idea was to continue doing other reporting – but he quickly discovered the time investment needed for a daily podcast, even when the presenting load is shared.
“It sounds like it’s just someone… asking a bunch of questions over the course of half an hour, but the reality is that the amount of work that goes into every episode we put out I think would be astonishing if you were not on the inside of it.”
Loyal and diverse audience
Today in Focus has built a loyal listenership, with 76% of the audience listening for at least a year and 35% for more than three years. It also has a higher-than-average proportion of listeners aged 25 to 34 and of women (52%), according to The Guardian.
Jackson told Press Gazette the “deep dive” format and “the fact that we do such varied content” means “there’s always something for everyone.
“And I think the fact that we try and sometimes cover stories that aren’t getting reported elsewhere, and it might be because the journalist here has done a particularly brilliant story or because we just feel as a team it’s being underreported. I think people come to us for that content. I think also the tone, the pace of the show.”
Safi explained that the tone is pitched as saying to a listener “you might not know much about this, and that’s okay because for the next half hour, we’re going to talk to someone who does and together me, Nosheen and the listener are going to work it out step by step and ask the questions about things that aren’t clear.”
Safi also noted that podcasting is more flexible than other forms of journalism because it “hasn’t come from anything, not even radio and so there’s no set form, you get to invent it every day. And I think people like that.
“I think people like the idea that the show’s not predictable in terms of what we cover, but even the way we cover it. It might be a half-hour documentary-style piece. It could be an interview with [political editor] Pippa Crerar straight out of a briefing with Number 10. It could be a half-hour conversation with a Ukrainian volunteer in the first week of the war. It might be a discussion with a journalist in Gaza while bombs are falling around them. And that’s only for the week, it could be all of those things at once.”
Daily news podcasting: Planning around worst-case scenarios
Jackson, who was executive producer on Today in Focus at launch before becoming head of audio in 2021, said her biggest lesson had been the importance of “really good planning” for every episode and interview.
“I think if you have a sense of how you’re trying to get there, that really makes the edit much easier,” Jackson said. “And I certainly know in the early days when you didn’t know that and you didn’t have a thorough plan – it wasn’t that you didn’t get there, it just took a lot longer and we were regularly – partly as well because of those crazy Brexit votes – but we were sort of finishing at midnight, one, two in the morning, and that’s not sustainable.”
Jackson added that the usefulness of constructing the introduction as a “mini story” at the beginning of each episode became clear.
“I think the more crowded the market becomes, the more you really know you have to work very hard to pull people in the first minute.”
One example she gave was a 2022 episode on a spate of bank robberies in Beirut and how they fit into the state of the Lebanese economy, which opened with Safi saying: “A couple of weeks ago, I went to meet a bank robber.”
Jackson said: “It was just a really clever device and told through a human being, if you like, rather than, say, policy or economics.”
Safi echoed the importance of planning and “shock-proofing” interviews, saying it is important to “expect the unexpected and to always have a fallback, because with a print page, you can just sort of not run something. Whereas for us…. something has to come out the next day.”
He added: “Every plan is built with the worst case scenario in mind. And it’s stressful, but it means that we have been able to do this thing which I genuinely think is nothing short of miraculous which is put out an episode every single weekday for five years.”
Podcast and newsroom collaboration
The Today in Focus team works closely with the wider Guardian newsroom, who Jackson said are “up for collaborating with us, I hope because they know we take care of those stories, but also because we reach these new audiences”.
Jackson said the investigations team had been “really collaborative and generous with the podcast and letting us work with them early on so we could capture stuff like the Pegasus series that Mike fronted or recently the Cost of the Crown“.
“It means we can make a really rich series and really go deep into the storytelling,” Jackson said, “but also I think sometimes even I see stories on The Guardian and I think I don’t have time to get across that or it looks complicated, or I feel a bit intimidated.
“I think sometimes our podcasts are helpful as sort of being a gateway into some of our stories and that we can break down what might be a really heavy going data story and then I think people can go back and read it and feel that they understand the broad brushstrokes and it makes it easier.”
Safi added that they “go into every episode not assuming any knowledge, so we’re going to build it for you from the ground up and lead you through it in a very human way as if you’re just talking to a friend at the pub or something.
“I think that’s very important because we get more news than ever, and in a weird way you end up more confused than you were when you had less news. So to have someone say ‘I know as much as you about this, so let’s sit down with someone who knows what they’re talking about and figure it out’ – I think that’s really inviting.
“For me it’s really nice to feel like you’re in a sort of relationship with the listener and together we’re going to make sense of the news. It’s very different to reporting but it’s really rewarding.”
Email email@example.com to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog