Issue 248,  published March 3, 2020

All the News That’s Fit to Mailkimp

Who are we, if we are not fretting about the New York Times?

Ben Smith, the former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, began his tenure as the David Carr-descended media columnist over at The Gray Lady this past Sunday, and his inaugural missive is… well, about the Times. Specifically, it’s about how the Times’ increasing success as a singular journalistic institution may well be a detriment to the news business as a whole, particularly within the context of an increasingly consolidated environment in which everybody’s doing everything — a newspaper is also a podcaster, a blog is also a Hollywood IP machine, Vaulter is connected to a cruise line — and where a likely end result is an insurmountable gulf between a single diversifying player and everybody else, which is great for the Times but not so great for the news business. (This environment also creates a scenario where media columnists will always be operating in a weird situation, since everything they’d write about could complicate the various activities of their employers. Then again, maybe that’s the point.)

In other words, the column advances a take that the dude Josh Benton has been slinging for a bit now, but it comes with some fresh news that’s explicitly relevant to us here in podcast-land.

Firstly, Smith confirms Ben Mullin’s report over at the Wall Street Journal that Serial Productions has been exploring a sale, and specifies that the Times is in “exclusive talks” to acquire the This American Life spin-off podcast studio. He also gives a number: Serial Productions — which houses Serial and S-Town, along with various projects in development that aren’t This American Life — was valued at $75 million, though if a deal actually gets done, the Times is expected to pay less than that.

The $75 million valuation number is definitely curious, given that we’re talking about one of the most valuable podcast studios on the market that owns what is perhaps the most lauded podcast of all time. That number would also place the deal vaguely in Parcast territory, which was $56 million guaranteed plus $47 million in incentives. But I wouldn’t go too far with that comparison; the New York Times is fundamentally a different kind of buyer than Spotify, which is in a position to be significantly more aggressive with its deals, and an acquisition of Serial Productions would probably require more work around the preservation of culture, identity, and brand power.

Secondly, the column also highlights what would be the strategic pathway for the Times deal. “The deal, along with The Daily, the popular weekday podcast at The Times, could form the basis for an ambitious new paid product — like the company’s Cooking and Crossword apps — that executives believe could become the HBO of podcasts,” Smith writes. In other words, we could very well be talking about an actual spin-out paid podcast app built around NYT Audio assets.

So, yes, the fact that yet another party invoked the whole “HBO of Podcasts” construct triggered groans among some podcast corners, but I dunno, I kinda feel it would actually be pretty apt in this context. After all, we’re talking about a tightly curated portfolio of premium — in the genuine sense of the word! — podcasts that are monetized as a bundle within a broader, validated business model. Of course, this very idea raises the possibility of a universe where The Daily could be dragged behind a paywall, if doesn’t end up being deployed as a top of the funnel, but whatever the scenario, this theoretical NYT Audio app would in large part be marketed towards a demographic that’s already inclined to pay for more NYT stuff. Consider the system-level upside of what happens next: this could help get more people used to paying for podcasts. More so than Luminary, anyway.

I’d stroke my chin, but we’re not supposed to be touching our faces right now.