July 7, 2017

Robin Amer thought she was a public radio lifer. She interned at NPR when she was 18 years old. She’s been a talk show producer for a public radio station in Boston. She worked at WBEZ, the NPR member station in Chicago.

So when she moved in June to USA Today Network — Gannett’s working title for its constellation of 109 local newspapers across the United States — people asked her why she was joining a company that has so far only dabbled in audio.

But Amer had an answer ready.

“The reason for that is, USA Today and its network has what none of these other companies that I’ve been talking to has: a national network of newspapers and journalists based all around the country and the resources to support those journalists,” she told Poynter.

The truth is, if you sat around and tried to come up with a podcast that was a perfect fit for Gannett, you’d probably come up with something like Amer’s latest project. The co-winner of WNYC’s podcast accelerator competition, The City aims to feature serialized deep-dives into various cities across the United States.

This fits glove-in-hand with USA Today Network’s ambitions to showcase its local journalism on a national stage, where bigger stories can attract bigger audiences and bigger advertisers.

Amer, who was an associate editor at the Chicago Reader before joining USA Today Network as a creative director and executive producer of The City, says there’s a huge opportunity for the newspaper company to compete with the heavy hitters of the podcasting industry — shows like This American Life, Serial and Startup — that turn out high-end narrative storytelling for large audiences.

Related Training: Podcasting for Everyone

“It’s only because podcasting is so new that we would even think to say: ‘Well, there’s already Serial, so why would you do another longform, investigative, episodic show?” Amer said. “To me, that’s kind of like asking, ‘Well, ‘CSI’ exists and ‘The Wire’ exists, why would you do another police procedural?'”

USA Today envisions running The City as a truly local-to-national podcast, said Amer, who envisions holding a competition among the paper’s various local newspapers to pick each season’s new story.

Although season one will be based in Chicago, Amer will ask the company’s journalists to submit great investigative stories from their local markets that are a good fit for auditory storytelling that would appeal to a national market.

“So, that could be Nashville,” Amer said. “That could be Phoenix. That could be Milwaukee. We don’t know yet.”

The podcast isn’t the first for USA Today Network, said Liz Nelson, its vice president of strategic content marketing. The company produces more than 60 hours of audio programming per week across its various properties, with shows like Accused from the Cincinnati Enquirer and Mothership from USA Today.

But The City is the first attempt at creating a podcast that reflects the network’s broader strategy to bring its local markets to national prominence. That’s been tried for other areas of Gannett’s journalism, including investigative reporting and video.

USA Today Network has begun selling advertising for its podcasts, but Nelson emphasized that the medium is still a nascent one for the company. The podcasting market remains relatively small for advertisers, which still don’t have the kind of granular audience data that might inspire bigger ad buys.

That could change, in part, because Apple is releasing more detailed information about listeners, Nelson said. Plus, companies like Wondery are now offering network advertising for podcasts.

“… We would not be making this investment if we didn’t think we could monetize it,” Nelson said.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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