A song to read by: "It Makes the Babies Want to Cry," by George Clanton
What I’m reading: "Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland," by Patrick Radden Keefe
Editor's note: This piece originally published yesterday on Adweek. My parents visited this week (see here), so I ran out of time to write. Nonetheless, the topic, and the more analytical style of the piece, make it ideal Medialyte material.
Sound of The Times
The New York Times announced yesterday that it was seeking volunteers to beta test its newest experiment, an app called New York Times Audio, which will function as a clearinghouse for all the audio products under The Times’ banner, including its podcasts, read-aloud journalism, Audm-produced pieces and more.
The app will also feature audio journalism from a curated set of publishers, including BuzzFeed News, New York Magazine and Rolling Stone, though the publisher declined to share specifics on the financial details of those partnerships. Each of the listed publishing partners produces content on Audm, which The Times acquired last year.
The app is seeking participants to download the offering and, starting in November, provide the media company with feedback on their experience. The initial audience of volunteers will be small, Stephanie Preiss, The Times’ vp of audio and TV, told Adweek, because its primary objective is to test a critical premise: Will people use the product?
“We have thousands of things we want to learn and test, but they share a common theme, which is: ‘Have we created something that people are returning to?’ It’s pretty much that simple,” Preiss said. “We have all these hypotheses about what’s going to make them do that, but the main thing is whether or not the value is clear to them.”
If The Times builds a standalone audio product that succeeds in attracting repeat listeners, it could mark a new era in the audio industry. The last decade has bred a reticence amongst media companies to rest their content strategy on algorithmically driven third-party platforms, but publishers have largely ceded control of their audio distribution to companies like Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Amazon.
In testing the willingness of its audience to seek out its content on a standalone app, The Times is gauging the viability of an owned-and-operated audio product, which could reduce its reliance on intermediaries, as well as offer a host of data and advertising advantages.
Richer data = stickier products and better ads
Doing so allows publishers to collect richer first-party data and more accurately track user preferences, which enables them to recommend more relevant articles and advertisements. As a result, the product becomes stickier, users return more often and the virtuous cycle continues.
New York Times Audio wants to test this same premise for aural journalism. By tracking what users listen to, enjoy or dislike, the app will be able to make smarter recommendations, as well as serve more personalized advertisements.
In theory, the final product would be an audio platform better able to keep you enthralled, allowing The Times to offer its advertisers a larger, more engaged audience of listeners.
The only good platform is an owned platform
The Times’ experiment builds upon the lessons publishers have learned from their experiences on social media platforms.
Whether Spotify or Facebook, third-parties are less reliable and less predictable than proprietary technology; one algorithm tweak and an entire distribution strategy becomes obsolete. By building a native audio platform and using it to directly distribute and promote its content, The Times reduces its reliance on middlemen.
Through consolidating its audio journalism into one place and owning its distribution, the publisher also creates a stronger direct relationship with listeners. Regular listeners will have a reliable home for their favorite audio products, while the podcast-curious will have a convenient destination to peruse all of The Times’ aural offerings.
“Our strategy is to be a company that is in direct relationships with people, because we believe that's what leads to willingness to pay,” Preiss said.
Here there be audio fiefdoms
If the product proves successful, which remains a sizable unknown, it could prompt other publishers to follow suit. Media companies with large audio stables, such as Vox Media, could build their own audio platforms, turning the podcasting landscape into a series of fiefdoms, not unlike the world of connected television.
Few publishers have either the resources or content offerings to make such a venture worthwhile, but peers like The Washington Post, Bloomberg Media, The Atlantic or The Wall Street Journal could potentially imitate the practice.
However, The Times has no plans to paywall its podcasts or remove them from larger distribution platforms like Spotify, Preiss confirmed, so the resulting landscape would still remain accessible.
Regardless, it would lay the groundwork for an audio ecosystem with far more parity than the one that exists today.
Some good readin'
— This investigation revealing how AT&T singlehandedly birthed one of the most dangerous Trump propaganda networks in the country ... egg on your face! (Reuters)
— Buy vintage, and recycle your clothes! (Vox)
— If you aren't reading party reporter extraordinaire Brock Coylar's newsletter "Are U Coming?," this is the place to start! (New York Magazine)
Cover image: "Doing, Thinking, Speaking," by Lisa Milroy