Sam Dolnick, Assistant Managing Editor at The New York Times, oversees the newspaper’s growing podcast portfolio and was among those who launched the top-rated The Daily morning news podcast. It earned him a spot on the annual Most Powerful People in Podcasting list for 2020. We asked Dolick about The Daily’s success, how a newspaper makes audio work, and if more podcasts may come from other sections of the paper other than news.
Podcast News Daily: The Daily is the runaway hit of podcasting, with nearly two years as the No. 1 podcast on the Podtrac monthly ranker. There are more daily news podcasts than ever, so what do you think is the reason that the show continues to stand out?
Sam Dolnick: All credit goes to producers and editors of The Daily team. They are some of the most creative, ambitious and dedicated journalists I’ve ever worked with. The inventiveness they bring to the news cycle has been a revelation for our newsroom and, as a result, our reporters want to bring their biggest stories to The Daily.
PND: How will Serial and This American Life fit into what you do?
Dolnick: There’s a giant audience out there that’s hungry for great, narrative storytelling. The Serial team, which works closely with the newsroom of This American Life, adds serious firepower to our audio report and partnering with them means that The Times will be the home of even more of that kind of work.
PND: Digital now has more revenue than the printed paper for the New York Times. Does that open doors for the podcast team to do things that you couldn’t before?
Dolnick: Audio has already been a big part of the digital evolution of The Times. Huge numbers of people who may not read The Times, in print or online, now listen to our journalists every single day and have formed a deep relationship with The Times. Those relationships have opened all kinds of doors for us. Along with our other chart-topping shows and series, including 1619, Rabbit Hole and Caliphate, we’ll continue to build new listening habits across a range of formats and bring more people into The Times universe.
PND: The New York Times is one of the biggest news brands in the U.S. and the world with massive reach and influence. But podcasting is a very intimate medium, often driven by a personality. How do you square those two?
Dolnick: Our podcasts should never feel like a big, old institution is talking to you because who wants to hear that. They should feel personal, intimate, human – a journalist with an important story to tell is here to tell it, in their own voice. But we think the authority and the reach of The Times brand amplifies those voices and helps them break through even more powerfully.
PND: The Times has so far had a pretty news-focused podcast approach. Will we ever see you create shows that leverage the arts, sports, travel, crossword, food, or other sections of the paper?
Dolnick: The past few years have seen some of the most tumultuous news stories any of us have ever lived through, and our podcasts have really tried to seize the moment. But we have already been expanding more and more into other territories, with audio pieces around music, sports, food, and we are excited to do more of that.
PND: How well are audio and print working together?
Dolnick: We’ve been kind of surprised and delighted that audio and print complement each other really well. The acres of reporting that goes into big print stories is hugely valuable to mine for audio. And as we’ve begun working with Audm in recent months, we have found that the right kind of print stories can make for great audio experiences when they’re read aloud. We are really excited about that form.
PND: The newspaper and website are subscription-based. Does that mean it is only a matter of time before the audio content will be too?
Dolnick: The digital world moves quickly, and the audio landscape is evolving right before our eyes. At The Times, we’re committed to dramatically growing our audio audience, and building a sustainable business around it that allows us to tell more stories.
PND: What impact has COVID-19 had on how the Times is making podcasts this year?
Dolnick: COVID has changed everything about everything, of course. Our audio team is working from home and producing The Daily remotely. Michael Barbaro is recording from a makeshift home studio, like every other host everywhere. But crisis focuses the mind of a newsroom. We have used COVID to launch all kinds of new audio programming, from our Sugar Calling series with Cheryl Strayed to the Sunday Read on The Daily to special pop-up episodes just because.
PND: Do you have a favorite podcast genre?
Dolnick: I’m a sucker for just about any NBA podcast. I’m always here for a good, long interview. I love music podcasts. And then I spend a lot of time with narrative journalism podcasts.
Check out the complete Most Powerful People in Podcasting 2020 list HERE.