Our podcast: Digital News Report 2023. Episode 5: News podcasts: who is listening and what formats are working?
In this episode of our Digital News Report 2023 podcast we look at the world of news podcasts and why they're popular with listeners and publishers. We look at the various types of news podcasts, some of the most popular titles, the platforms where people are listening, and who's making money from them.
Nic Newman is the lead author of the Digital News Report 2023 and is a Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute. He is also a consultant on digital media, working actively with news companies on product, audience, and business strategies for digital transition. He writes an annual report for the Institute on future media and technology trends. He is the author of a DNR chapter on news podcasts.
Our host Federica Cherubini is Director of Leadership Development at the Reuters Institute. She is an expert in newsroom operations and organisational change, with more than ten years of experience spanning major publishers, research institutes and editorial networks around the world.
Why study news podcasts? | Listening rates in different countries | News podcast listeners | Popular types of news podcasts | News podcast hosts | Top platforms for news podcasts | Popular types of news podcasts | Who’s winning in news podcasts | The future of news podcasts
Why study news podcasts? ↑
Federica: So, news podcasts are now a well-established news format. Some podcasts like the New York Times, ‘The Daily’, is almost 2,000 episodes in. Why did you focus on podcasts in this year's report?
Nic: I think we've seen a step change in terms of publisher interest this year and investment in news-related podcasts. It's one of the few media types that's growing, albeit quite slowly. And I think part of the reason is it attracts elusive younger audiences that publishers are looking for and really is very good for building loyalty and connections, which publishers are looking for. So, there's quite a lot of interest, quite a lot of talking up of podcasts. But actually, I think there's also a lot of questions, not least the definitions. What is a podcast these days? They're quite loose. Measurement is incredibly patchy, partly because listening is very fragmented, spread across different third-party platforms like Apple and Spotify. So, it's very hard to know what's working. There's very little publicly available data. And so, that's really what I wanted to look at this year, as well as collecting general information about consumption and demographics. We really wanted to know what podcasts people are listening to. So, we used an open question in the survey where we asked people which podcast they're listening to most regularly, and then we categorised those according to type, length, gender of the presenters, origin of the country. And we did this across nine countries where podcasts are particularly well-developed, including UK, US, Germany, France, Spain, and a range of others. So, it's not perfect. You know, surveys have a lot of drawbacks as well. But I think, given the absence of other measurement, it gives a pretty good feel for what people are listening to and what's working.
Federica: So, if we start with some headline figures, the report finds that 34% of the sample said they listened to a podcast in the past month, which is up five percentage points since 2018. But news podcast listening is largely flat and sits at just 12%. Can you take us through some of these findings? What does it mean? Why is it happening?
Nic: I think it's partly that podcasting and news is not necessarily a marriage made in heaven in terms of, you know, certainly when podcasting started, which is 2004-ish, it took quite a long time to download a programme. So, the news programme was probably sort of slightly out of date by the time you did it. And actually, news was never really something that took off in the early days of podcasting. It was about entertainment. It was about radio programmes on demand. And I think that kind of really changed, partly because of technology and the move from download to streaming, but partly just because people invented a whole different way of doing audio, which they then call podcasts. And so, obviously, ‘Serial’ [in 2014] was a real turning point, this sort of true crime podcast that captured people's imagination. But you didn't really have daily news output until ‘The Daily’ in 2019. There were a few more before that, but The ‘Daily’ really sort of broke the mold. And since then, we have had this sort of huge increase in supply. But actually, the audience hasn't grown to the same extent for news podcasting. And I think that's because a lot of the other reasons we talk about in the report around, you know, if you're looking to put something in your ears, you maybe don't necessarily want it to be downbeat, you want to be diverted, you want to be entertained. And so news podcasting, we have to look at as part of this wider ecosystem, where you're competing with all of the other genres, and in terms of attention.
Listening rates in different countries ↑
Federica: You mentioned you look at several countries, can you take us through some of the differences you've seen across countries in terms of listening rates, for example?
Nic: Right. So we talked about the headline rate being 12% for news podcasts, which doesn't sound terribly high, but in some countries, it's much higher than that. So in the United States, for example, 19% listen monthly. It's high in Sweden - of course, that's the home of Spotify - Australia, and it's no coincidence that all of those three countries are ones where there's been a lot of investment in high quality news podcast content designed for your ears, as opposed to the radio. And I think there's a sort of virtuous circle there as well, because the higher quality content has created more interest from advertisers, which in turn has brought in more investment. And so you've got the sort of virtuous circle. In other countries, where I think we see it lower, maybe France, Netherlands, for example, what you see is less native content, it's more about sort of radio on demand, and there's less incentive, I think, therefore, for the industry to really promote podcasts. So it's partly that, you know, there's less of awareness of what podcasts are in different countries, partly because it's taken off at different rates.
News podcast listeners ↑
Federica: You hinted this at the very beginning, but what is the profile of the podcast listener? And why are, or should, news organisations interested in this small section of news users?
Nic: It's relatively small, but it is exactly the group that they are struggling to access in other ways. So it's definitely younger. So young people spend a lot of time with mobile phones and with headphones, and they're out and about a lot. So just naturally, it makes more sense that they're going to access more audio content. And of course, that's a range of things from music to podcasts. So they're more likely to listen. But it's not all younger people, definitely also better educated and richer groups as well. So obviously, that is hugely appealing to advertisers. That's exactly who they're looking for to attract the next generation of subscribers or news consumers. But some publishers are also trying to get to harder to reach audiences and podcasts, news podcasts aren't necessarily the best way of doing that. They're also more likely to be men, interestingly. So about four in 10 men say that they're listening to podcasts every month. And it's only about under a third for women, for example. And again, maybe that is the nature of the content, that there's not enough content that's appealing specifically to women, I'm talking about specifically news podcasts now.
Popular types of news podcasts ↑
Federica: So you attempted in this chapter to see what are the most popular news podcasts across 12 countries. And you mentioned at the beginning that you categorise them and you did some tagging. Take us through what are some of these types of news podcasts that you've categorised?
Nic: Yeah, we've done a bit of work on podcasts before. So we broadly used a categorisation that came out of a study where we looked at the supply of podcasts or what type of programmes were being produced. And we identified four different types. So firstly, news roundups. So this is typically something that might be quite short, somewhere between one and five minutes. And so things like CNN does something called ‘5 Things’. And they're designed to very briefly update you, maybe as part of your morning routine, for example. Secondly, there's the deep dive. And probably ‘The Daily’ is the best known of that. But that has spawned literally hundreds of similar, normally, 20 minute [episodes] designed for your commute to give you detail on one big story each day. And it employs these sort of narrative techniques where you it's a bit like a documentary. So it's really very well structured and thought through to keep you from the first minute to the last minute. And then thirdly, you've got these, I guess you call them, documentaries. I mentioned ‘Serial’ earlier. So some of them are true crime, some of them about politics. So you take ITV News, for example, did one about the Partygate scandal in the UK that brought down Prime Minister Boris Johnson. So again, using narrative documentary based techniques, same subject, but multiple episodes. And typically, you know, they could be up to 30, 40 minutes. And then finally, the rest tend to be what I'm calling extended chat. So these are often roundtable discussions, informal style, personality led, essentially. And they can often go on for literally hours. So Joe Rogan, I think, you know, typically his episodes are over three hours long. People don't necessarily listen for the whole thing, but they can be, you know, long. And they are a mixture of sort of entertainment news, basically. So four very distinct categories. And we essentially just tagged each of the programmes in terms of length and type by one of these four to see which ones are the most popular.
Federica: And which ones are the most popular across countries?
Nic: I think it's slightly different in different countries. But essentially, the two we felt we saw mentioned most often were deep dive explanatory, particularly in the US, Scandinavian countries, you know, seem to be really appealing. And then extended chat, you know, dominated many of the charts. And I think that's partly in the US, for example, because extended chat almost comes out the talk radio tradition. So it's sort of similar to that, but just you listen to it when you want. But I think it's partly because they're just, there's a lot of them. They're relatively simple and cheap to produce. You just get people in the studio, you start recording, and then you finish when there's nothing left to say.
News podcast hosts ↑
Federica: One other thing you've looked in the report is the profile of the host of the most popular news podcasts. What did you find?
Nic: We found that somewhere between, depending on the country, 60% and 80% were men. And I think, again, this is due to the predominance of the extended chat, a lot of the people who like to do extended chat or a commission to do extended chat tend to be men. Whereas actually, some of the deep dive ones that I talked about tend to have gender balanced hosts, quite often, they have two hosts, a man and a woman. So I think this probably also explains why listening tends to be more men than women. So there's, I think there's definitely a representation issue. So in sort of flow radio, I think there's been real progress in terms of move towards more gender equality. And I think some of that still has to happen in the podcast world.
Top platforms for news podcasts ↑
Federica: One other thing I find incredibly interesting is that, for example, in the US, the most popular platform for consuming podcasts isn't even an audio first platform, it's YouTube. Why? Explain, help us understand.
Nic: Well, it is intriguing. And it's been sneaking up on us for a few years, because if you know, it used to be Apple essentially completely dominant in podcasting. And it still is very important in terms of the download numbers, as any publisher will tell you. But what we've seen is firstly Spotify, investing significant amounts in podcasting, original podcasting, though, of course, it's pulling back from some of that now, including Joe Rogan. And they also started to film the podcast. So Joe Rogan is audio, but you can also watch it. And Joe Rogan, of course, started on YouTube, as a video and audio podcast. And this is very popular, particularly if look at the top podcasts in the US. I think there was a Pew survey recently, which showed that 50% of them are now filmed. Some of them are basically cable talk shows that are then lifted, and you get the extra distribution on YouTube. But I think the other thing that's happened in the last year and a half is that more shows are being filmed, partly for that distribution by YouTube, which has proved popular. But also, because you can then take the best bits, and you can put them on TikTok or Twitter, and you're getting a whole new audience. So people who weren't necessarily listening for an hour in audio will watch a little bit in video. And video is really, you know, popular with young people, of course, as well. So I think there's a lot of… but it is making the definition of podcast really hard because some of them are really, sort of, video
Who’s winning in news podcasts ↑
Federica: Yeah, indeed. And who's benefiting financially from news podcasts? Is it the platforms or the publishers?
Nic: I mean, I think the vast majority of listening, of course, is via platform. There are, you know, publishers that have their own platforms, particularly public service broadcasters who are trying to get people to listen to programmes through those public platforms, like BBC Sounds, for example, which is really popular in the UK. But most individual publishers will find it hard to get the distribution if they're not essentially using one of these big platforms. And the problem with that, of course, is that they don't necessarily have the control over what the next click should be, or the context around it, or the discovery side of it, which is why some publishers are sort of banding together or in Scandinavia, for example, in Nordic countries, Schibsted, a very large publisher, has bought a podcast platform, and is trying to create an alternative for listening to not just podcasts, but audiobooks as well. And packaging all that together with their subscription products. So I think that's a really interesting development we may see more of. And then the other thing that's happening is that a number of the public service broadcasters are trying to deliver the programmes first on their own platforms, so their loyal listeners get it first, and only then to distribute it via all the other platforms, or indeed just restricting it to their own platforms so that people have to go there. So that's a new trend that we've seen, you know, really grow, again, in Norway and Sweden and some of those other countries over the last few years. So I think the battle between platforms and publishers will be slightly different in the audio space. But it's definitely a tension point over who controls it, who's getting much of the value, who's getting much of the money and the advertising revenue as well.
Federica: So are people making money from podcasts and news podcasts?
Nic: Some, but I mean, in countries like the US, there are publishers, for whom audio and podcasts is now a very significant business, Vox Media, for example, New York Times investing very heavily in it, but they're also investing a lot of money. So whether that's profitable or not, we're not quite sure. But I think a lot of publishers are looking at this as sort of the long term. So it's not necessarily about immediate advertising revenue, though advertising is a primary way in which publishers, commercial publishers are making money. But also about loyalty and building relationships and identifying new customers, so subscribers, for example. So something like ‘The Daily’ will be part of the aim is to sort of cement relationships with existing subscribers. Part of it is about identifying new, younger users who then you're going to do a special offer for a subscription or whatever. So that's part of the publisher thinking. And then there's some others. So in the UK, for example, one of the: top podcasts is ‘The Rest is Politics’. It's not produced by a conventional publisher, it's produced by a company called Goalhanger. And it's Rory Stewart, a former politician, conservative politician and Alistair Campbell, who used to be chief advisor to the Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair. And they have produced a podcast called ‘The Rest is Politics’, which is hugely popular in our data. One of the top three in the UK. And some of their revenue is coming from live events. So they sold out the London Palladium two nights in a row for I don't know how many seats, probably a few thousand, they sold out in about 10 minutes. So some of the top podcasters can make significan money through personal appearances, through events, particularly if you have a kind of low cost space. So you've got that going on as well.
Federica: Who knows, maybe next year we'll be recording the Digital News Report podcast at the London Palladium in front of a live audience.
Nic: We're in the niche podcasting business, Federica, which is also an important but difficult…
The future of news podcasts ↑
Federica: But we have a loyal audience, right? Going back to the original finding that news podcast listening has kind of been flat for the past six years. Have we reached peak podcast? What challenges do you see that news organisations are facing in growing their podcast audiences?
Nic: Yeah, I think the last 10 years really, we've seen very significant growth in the supply of podcasts. But as I kind of mentioned, the audience isn't growing as fast. And this is not just confined to podcasts, this is the problem of abundance. You know, you now get to a stage where consumers have huge amounts of choice. So just producing a podcast is not enough, you have to produce podcasts that are distinctive and deliver something of real value. There's literally no point in producing something in a half-hearted way. It's not going to succeed in this kind of competitive market. Having said that, I think the future for audio is incredibly attractive. You know, there's not many areas that are growing, audio remains unique in that you can listen while you're doing other things. I think the other point is that, and the reason why I think audio as a whole is going to grow is because of the, there's so many more connection points than there used to be, and they're still growing. So not just, you know, headphones, which are becoming a platform in their own right, but also just the millions of voice control devices that are now in people's homes, ready to be activated for long content, short content, live content, roundups, extended chat, you know, deep dives, whatever you want to think, read stories. So, you know, that's going to be another really big growth area. The New York Times just launched their audio app, which have a number of their stories now read either by humans or by AI chatbots that sound like humans. So I think audio is going to be super abundant, and there's loads of opportunities in that, but also some issues as well. No silver bullet, but I think it's going to be an absolutely critical part of the future for pretty much all publishers.
Federica: So a positive outlook for news podcasts?
Nic: A rare and positive story, a bright spot, definitely, but there's no silver bullet, and you really have to focus now on quality, distinctiveness, understanding your audiences going forward.
Federica: Thank you so much for joining us, Nic.