At a time when newspaper companies are anything but flush with cash, a move by the New York Times to spend millions to acquire Serial Productions shows where the Times sees its business — and media consumption — heading. The rumored sale is now a done deal, with the two companies announcing that Serial Productions will become part of the Times’ expanding audio division. Terms of the deal were not immediately announced, but the paper reported it was worth about $25 million.
The purchase of Serial Productions puts it under the same roof as the morning news podcast The Daily, which Podtrac says is the most listened-to show among those it tracks. That will give Serial an outlet to promote its new shows, an incentive that is behind the timing of the deal. Serial plans to launch its newest show July 30. The five-episode Nice White Parents will feature reporter Chana Joffe-Walt as she apparently concludes white families are to blame for the state of public schools. “If you want to understand what’s wrong with our public education system, you have to look at what is arguably the most powerful force in our schools: White parents,” says the podcast’s webpage on the Times website.
As Serial Productions joins The Times, the team plans to produce a number of other shows and series under The Times and Serial Productions banners.
Each episode of Serial’s first season was downloaded 20 million times on average, according to the latest figures released by the Times. The show is credited with igniting the current podcast boom, but the second and third seasons of Serial failed to match that buzz as the podcast universe became more crowded. An alliance with the country’s largest newspaper could help Serial cut through the increasingly crowded universe of more than 1.3 million podcasts.
Serial Productions was created in 2017 by Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder and Ira Glass three years after Serial was born as a side project to their work at the WBEZ Chicago-based radio show “This American Life.” As a Times company, Serial Productions says it will be able to commission and edit its own stories and also allow its team to tell more stories and produce more series by being part of a larger organization.
“We’re incredibly proud of Serial and wanted to find a home where we felt shared values, one where we would be supported and resourced to tell more stories, of the highest quality,” Snyder said in the announcement. “We’re thrilled to be joining the Times, where they have demonstrated a commitment to pursuing the possibilities of audio and long-form narrative journalism.”
Sam Dolnick, an assistant managing editor who oversees Times audio, said the two organizations should be a good fit since both have a “mission-driven” attitude. “We have been enormous admirers of This American Life and Serial for years and their work has inspired and informed our own,” he said. “We feel confident the ‘Serial’ and ‘This American Life’ teams share our desire to continue to find groundbreaking ways to tell stories, grow listenership and help more and more people better understand the world.”
This American Life remains an independent company and will continue its weekly broadcasts on public radio and its podcast. But the Times said it has entered into an “ongoing creative and strategic alliance” with the company created by Glass. That will allow the This American Life team to continue collaborating with Serial Productions. The two companies will also be aligned on marketing and advertising sales.
“I can’t imagine a better partner for the journalism we and Serial do than the Times, and look forward to continuing to invent this still-young world of podcasting with them at our side,” Glass said in a statement.
Times Audio 2.0
Audio as a means to market the New York Times to the next generation of readers isn’t exactly a new strategy. The company deployed the same game plan in the 1940s when it bought a pair of radio stations and remained in the broadcast business until it sold WQXR-FM New York in 2009. As it has slowly ramped up an expansion into podcasting, the revenue numbers have been enticing. The Times reported its podcast ad revenue increased 30% during the first quarter compared with a year ago. And executives said consumption of The Daily benefitted from a “surge in audience” due to increased news consumption related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We believe audio journalism is integral to our future, allowing us to seamlessly fit into the busy days of ever more people,” Times executives said in a joint blog post. “That’s why we’re expanding in so many directions: growing our newsroom audio team; building an audio team in Opinion; acquiring Serial Productions; and partnering with This American Life.”
The executives see Serial and This American Life as offering “magazine-style stories in audio” as opposed to the frontpage mission of The Daily. The move will also make the company less dependent on the success of a single podcast.
In a move to shore up its audio efforts, the Times recently bought Audm, a company that produces read-aloud versions of long-form journalism. It will allow the Times to offer audio versions of a curated selection of its own stories, as well as audio stories from top-tier publications like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Wired and New York Magazine.
Under the new structure, the Serial team will report to Assistant Managing Editor Sam Dolnick, who oversees the Times’ audio products. And Times Vice President for Audio and TV Stephanie Press will lead the work incorporating Serial into the Times. Koenig and Snyder will continue to be focused on Serial as well as new shows, while Neil Drumming, a filmmaker and former This American Life producer, will be Serial’s managing editor.
“We’ve seen the power that audio can have in building deeper connections with our audience and we’re committed to bringing listeners the best audio journalism in the world,” said Meredith Kopit Levien, Chief Operating Officer of The New York Times Company. “Our goal is to continue to evolve our audio offerings and to chart a sustainable course for high-quality, immersive audio journalism.”