Prominent, storied, and consistently controversial, the New York Times’ Opinion section often feels like a part of the news organization that’s distinct unto itself. It is also uniquely powerful within the Times. Tyson Evans, NYT Opinion’s senior editor for strategy and product, tells me that the section is often the most-read section among all the journalism the Times publishes each day. It is only natural, then, that such an audience engine should have a podcast of its own — and soon, it will.
Called The Argument, the weekly Opinion podcast will feature columnists David Leonhardt, Michelle Goldberg, and Ross Douthat (plus special guests) guiding listeners through the news cycle with their commentary and analysis. In other words, it is yet another entry in the exceptionally saturated genre of roundtable political podcasts, which includes the Slate Political Gabfest, Vox’s The Weeds, Pod Save America, and even Chapo Trap House.
Podcasts in this genre tend to be differentiated by the strength of publisher’s brand along with the individual appeal and connecting chemistry of its panelists. Evans submits that The Argument’s particular edge will apparently come from the oppositional ideologies of the three core anchors. “There are not many [political podcasts] who have worldviews as different as Ross, Michelle and David do,” he said. ”Ross is an intellectual, religious conservative. Michelle is a proud progressive. David’s politics are heterodox center-left. We think there is real value in their honestly hashing out the most complicated issues of the day and striving to understand each other’s positions.”
The show will also routinely draw from the section’s deep bench of columnists, all of whom will presumably bring their followings into the listener mix. Seems like a useful back-pocket move to have, from an audience development perspective.
It’s worth noting that the Times’ in-house audio team won’t be handling the show’s day-to-day production. Instead, they’ve farmed out duties to to Transmitter Media, the boutique podcast studio founded by former Midroll Media executive producer Gretta Cohn. The specific producers on task are Alex Laughlin, who was part of BuzzFeed’s recently laid-off podcast team, and freelancer Ryan Kailath. The Times’ audio team is said to remain involved in shaping the show’s identity, assisting with research, and developing an audience strategy.
So, here’s my thing about this story: I think it’s a no-brainer for the Opinion section to put out some audio product. I have no special insight into the data on this, but I’ve long suspected that there are chunks of the Times readership who primarily get their news through the columns of Frank Bruni, Gail Collins, and Paul Krugman. (In Krugman’s case, it’s news and music recommendations.) I’m thinking, specifically, about my septuagenarian father-in-law in the Mountain West who, while quirky in many ways, is also more representative of a big chunk of the “average American news consumer” that’s demographically separate from myself or my murderous millennial cohort that lives and dies by the push notification.
I also think that given the Opinion section’s… let’s-call-it-unique place in media and the wider culture, there is a ton of room to build a show that’s more formally adventurous than a basic round-table show. Maybe The Argument will be a really good conversational podcast; we’ll find out soon enough. It’ll probably do good business. But the fact of the matter is: these are not normal times, no sirree. These are emotional, difficult, harrowing, “why the hell are there white nationalists” times. And as much as you need the right journalists to step up to the plate, you also need the right formats to step up as well.
The Argument will roll out its first episode this Thursday.