Issue 212,  published June 4, 2019

Big Newsroom, Small Team

Ten years ago last month, the Daily Telegraph newspaper in the UK published a series of astonishing stories about an eye-catching piece of bureaucracy: the way politicians had been claiming expenses. The revelations carried on for weeks, with myriad follow ups and further investigation as the extent to which some MPs had been taking advantage of a lax system of reimbursements for their own profit was brought to slight. (Several parliamentarians would later go to prison as a result.)

Opinion polls showed that the public’s trust in their politicians plummeted as a result of this information coming out into the open, and have still not recovered their former levels. Some commentators draw a direct line between this collapse in confidence in elected officials and the result of the Brexit referendum in 2016, the resurgence of the far right, and the current government quagmire.

To mark the anniversary, the paper has put out a ton of special content, including a documentary film and new interactive tools for checking your MPs’ current expenses claims. The part that intrigued me, though, was a podcast. Titled ‘Expenses’, it tells the story of the original reporting and its fallout over six weekly episodes, focusing on the different characters and processes that made it all happen. It’s a really effectively-made show, well-told and scored, and was made completely in-house, masterminded by the Telegraph’s senior audio producer Peter Naughton. (If it sounds a bit like Slow Burn, that’s intentional — Naughton confirmed that the work of Leon Neyfakh and team was a major influence in how they approached this project.)

The dedicated podcast team at the Telegraph is really new (I spoke to Naughton for Hot Pod last autumn when he took on the gig, and he was the first person in the job). Until the start of 2019, when producer Theodora Louloudis was brought on, the team had only one full-time member of staff and a small pool of freelancers to draw on. Given that they also have a roster of regularly publishing shows to work on as well as other one-off series, I was pleasantly surprised by the scope and quality of the Expenses show.

Working on audio within a large legacy publication is a common but underreported job, I think. I’ve had one of these roles myself, and it can be lonely as a one or two person operation inside a massive machine that acknowledges the hotness of podcasts and demands quality work but doesn’t necessarily want to invest in it fully. Especially in the UK, where advertising revenue and listener numbers are way lower than what executives can see The Daily generating, say, it’s still hard to make the case for a properly staffed podcast operation. Given that background, I was really keen to hear from Naughton how they carved out the space at the Telegraph to invest in some larger scale narrative audio work, and how the Expenses podcast has shifted attitudes to audio at the paper.

First off, he said that being able to bring Louloudis on full time in January 2019 was absolutely vital. “I would not have to make this series without a second person around,” he said. “Theo’s been able to take a lot of the day to day editing of the other podcasts we’ve got running onto her plate, as well as helping to develop new ones.” They make three weekly shows, all of which run between 30 and 60 minutes (a Brexit one, a football one and a rugby one, if you’re interested), and then a fortnightly fashion podcast and several others that run seasonally throughout the year. There are at least three more in development, including a women’s football show for the world cup in France this summer.

Naughton reports to the Telegraph’s head of audio and video, Andy Mackenzie, and when the expenses anniversary was being discussed, it was Mackenzie who suggested they develop a podcast to go alongside the 75-minute high production value documentary that was already planned. “The idea I had, which was basically the one that we ended up making, was to break it up into interviews with key players and take more of a long form perspective on the story,” Naughton said. He sat in on all of the interviews for the documentary film, many of which had to be cut down to mere minutes in the final piece, but was able to tape his own hours-long conversations with the central characters, from the original reporting team to the paper’s lawyer, in order to pull the podcast together.

Louloudis was invaluable, transcribing tape and acting as a sounding board, but Naughton said he worked on the series like it was a passion project alongside his actual job. (He also narrates it). “I’ve done this one in a bit of a, megalomaniac might be the wrong word, but it came to a point where the quickest way to do this, at least in the way that I set out, was just to plough through it myself.”

That meant he worked a lot of weekends, taking advantage of the break from the regular schedule for the other podcasts and the relative quiet in his inbox to spend uninterrupted hours working on the script or “jumping between my desk and the little recording studio behind to tweak links”. Production fully kicked into gear on it three months ago, and he estimates that the first episode took between 40 and 50 hours of his own time, with the subsequent ones needing more like 30.

Something that really helped elevate the project was working with original music, which isn’t something the Telegraph can usually stretch to for their regular shows. “One of our freelancers, Elliott Lampitt, is also really talented sound designer and composer,” Naughton said. “He and I worked together on an existing song that he had to turn that into the theme. On one level that sounds like a small thing, but I remember the day when we got that locked down and it really felt like I knew what the shape of the project was going to be.”

The Expenses series isn’t sponsored. Rather, they’re using the midroll to point towards other aspects of the Telegraph’s package for the anniversary, and later they’ll use it to promote their other shows, Naughton said. “It was always going to be a flagship this one, and I think will remain so.”

Although the expenses investigation remains central to how the Telegraph positions its brand, Naughton said they were given absolute freedom to make the podcast however they wanted. “People were very willing to let me get on with telling the story. And then since it’s come out, I’ve had people around the newsroom come up to me and say we got it, spot on.” This is one of the things I really liked about the series — although it sounds slick, it doesn’t shy away from representing British journalism as it is, rather than as some shiny Hollywood fantasy. “

When I went into the interviews, I wasn’t sure how how much the journalists would be willing to show that side of it,” Naughton said. “They’re not ashamed of the fact that they were working in a really messy room and a lot of it was kind of flying around and having to be figured out and lost and found again. That process is actually something that they really proud of.”

Although Slow Burn and The Daily were very influential, Naughton was anxious that the series not just sound like a rip off or an homage. “One thing I was really sort to tease out in this is a Britishness — I think the episode with Matt [the paper’s cartoonist] captures that really nicely for me,” he said. “Not that the American podcasts don’t do this, but I think the piss-taking aspect of British culture is one of our great strengths.”

With three episodes out, the series has already exceeded all internal expectations about how many listeners it could attract, and is still growing as word of mouth builds, Naughton said. While it’s definitely put down a marker for what his small team can achieve and there are already plans for more high quality narrative projects, he’s keen to find a better process that doesn’t require quite so many of his weekends to be spent in the office. “Having gone through Expenses, which was a learning curve for me just to be doing this as well as doing the day job stuff, I know that to make another one we’ll need we need a bit more help,” he said.