Providing narrative perspective in a US news environment that’s in total overdrive is a daily challenge along with the changing audio consumption habits Lisa Tobin confronts, executive producer of audio and editor of The Daily podcast at the New York Times. 

When she can find the time, Lisa Tobin can be found happily consuming the media form she works on all day on - the podcast.

Tobin, Lisa photo 2018

Lisa Tobin

New inspiration is what she’s looking for.

“I try to listen and figure out what they’ve done, and what they’re doing to push things in a new direction” she reports from New York, fresh out of a production meeting. “There’s a lot of word of mouth in the podcasting community, which still feels quite small. When something catches on, there’s a lot of buzz, like ‘Oh, they’re trying something new and different’.”

So what are the standouts from her podcast listening lately?

“I’m very much interested in the future of listening – how the platform is going to affect what people will want to listen to”

“I’m really impressed by In the Dark,” she says. “That’s a journalist on a reporting journey; meeting people, figuring things out, and putting together a picture. It’s a very exciting example of what you can do with that form.”

Another flagship podcast, often credited with popularising the form, is still delivering inventive content too.

“A recent episode of This American Life, entitled ‘Five Women’ has been on my mind a lot. They found a story (in the #metoo context) - a smaller, varied story concerning a workplace boss who had all these different interactions with female employees over the years.

“It was kind of this Rashomon approach, where you hear from them, but never from him, but then, stunningly, you hear from his wife, who is still married to him and has learned all this.”

Her enthusiasm for the format is clear, as well as the professional appreciation. “It’s one of the times in the last few months where I’ve been jealous. It was such a perfect way to tell a particular story. I thought ‘put that in your back pocket as an approach, and the right story will come along’.”

Regularly topping the download charts, compelling stories aren’t something The Daily is short on. However, as a project, it was spontaneous in its coming together.

Unlikely genesis
The Daily launched in February 2017 and airs Monday through Friday. Every day, it offers a detailed look at a single news story. Host Michael Barbaro, a long-time political journalist at the New York Times, welcomes the viewer, and then usually interviews an informed and up-to-date Times correspondent.

Providing context, detail and press-corps conjecture, the podcast has been a huge success. It is often the most downloaded audio programme in North America.

When Tobin took over the audio department in August of 2016, she had a vision of producing a different kind of audio content. Fate soon intervened.

With the success of the likes of Serial, everything was pointing to long-form, multipart narrative pieces as the best way to make use of the NYT’s substantial newsroom and expertise.

Then came November 2016’s election results, and with it, an overriding priority.

“We launched the show in the second week of the Trump administration, and there’s just been such an incredible amount of news, but also important shifts in the country,” Tobin says. “In following the election process, we knew we had to do something to try to help explain this moment to people.

“I never anticipated that we would be doing that in a daily news form. We didn’t plan it that way, but it soon seemed intuitive and obvious. “

With the ambitious podcast now firmly in its grove, Tobin’s main concern is keeping things engaging.

“The concern is never ‘How are we going to put a show together for tomorrow?’ It’s more ‘How are we going to continue to keep this show interesting and fresh?’ It’s the same with anything you put out every day. How do you keep experimenting?”

With only 20-30 minutes of time to work with, and the need to cover the hard news of the day being hard-coded into The Daily, the space for innovation is always limited.

“A daily news show has made it difficult to do much in a way of experimentation and innovation. Our team of producers didn’t join this team excited to make a daily news show - they wanted to make the next Serial.

“Whenever I’m asked, ‘I want to podcast, but there are so many shows out there, what should I do?’, I always answer that you should lean into the thing that only you can do,” she says.

“[The team] took all their ways of thinking about stories and tried to continue to make a show that we’re all interested in making.”

As an example of pushing the format, Tobin points to a recent story the team pursued, examining US presidential pardons. One petitioner for such a pardon happened to host his own radio show, so the decision was made for Barbaro to call into that show and ask for his reasons on-air.

“We’d take that audio as an interview to start The Daily, and as a kind of an experiment,” says Tobin.

“It didn’t work out, but that’s the kind of thing I think about in the morning. Our goal was to get inside those stories and find the context and the characters - as well as the origins of all these stories.”

Interestingly, the strength of the news stories that the podcast has covered has led to interest from an entirely different platform.

In May, FX sealed a deal with the New York Times for a new show entitled The Weekly, which will look at the stories covered by correspondents on The Daily in more detail. Set to be delivered through FX’s TV channel, then on Hulu and FX’s on-demand services the following day, it’s a testament to the strength of these stories stretching across platform boundaries.

Engaging listeners
Carving out time for a larger narrative series took time. However, April of this year saw a sterling example come out of the New York Times audio department.

Caliphate has been an overwhelming success with critics and listeners, charting correspondent Rukmini Callimachi’s visceral story in covering the rise, fall and lasting repercussions of the so-called Islamic State group. TIME named it one of the best new podcasts of the year.

“Data for me, has become a tool to figure out what comes next - who’s not listening, and how to get it to them”

For Tobin, a major problem to be overcome was in connecting this in-depth, long-form content to the listenership used to the espresso-sized dose of The Daily.

“The way we think about it, strategically, is that The Daily forms the core of what our team does. In the same way that the newspaper is the daily product, but the New York Times puts out so much more extraordinary journalism in addition to, and in spite of, this daily habit.

“We’ve heard from a lot of people, anecdotally, who said, ‘Oh I thought it would be really good’, but who found it kind of daunting. Then, we put it on The Daily’s feed, and they listened and got hooked.”

While so much rests on good editorial direction, Tobin is keen to point out that smart distribution and using up-to-date data to parse listener information is important to putting together a strong podcast in 2018.

“Data for me, has become a tool to figure out what comes next - who’s not listening, and how to get it to them. In our case, data can tell us a lot about the growth of the podcast and where to focus.

“We’re very appreciative of the data, because we know this is an important story, and we want as many people as possible to listen to it. That’s the kind of thing only data can really answer, and it’s about distribution going forward.”

Industry concerns 
Tobin is constantly on the lookout for more creative ways to tell audio stories, but also the ways in which we consume audio.

“I’m very much interested in the future of listening – how the platform is going to affect what people will want to listen to.

“There’s a lot of talk about on-demand content and voice-command products, like [Amazon] Alexa, and how a new platform and way of listening will drive habits and what people listen to, programming-wise.”

Tobin is keenly aware that audio content is still a numbers game, and that paying close attention to how the product is being consumed is vital.

“We’re a newsroom, but we’re also an audio business,” she says. “We’re always thinking about the intersection between the audio and the editorial. I’m curious about how audio will evolve as the platforms evolve.”

How, and at what times of the day we consume audio is increasingly important.

“We feel like we tapped into a very particular space in people’s day. We hear from them, and they say, ‘You fit perfectly into my morning, right into a spot that I didn’t know needed to be filled’.

“My questions are - where are those other spots, and how will they shift and evolve as the platforms change?”