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Welcome to The City

Back in February, I wrote about the curious life of The City, an upcoming project by former WBEZ producer and Chicago Reader deputy editor Robin Amer: how the project began as a winning pitch to WNYC’s 2015 podcast accelerator, how a circuitous series of events led to the show becoming the centerpiece for a big podcasting gambit by the USA Today Network, the Gannett-owned media group uniting USA Today and a wide array of local news operations, and how the podcast was staffing up in preparation for its first season.

Well, The City is finally live, with the podcast dropping its first two episodes yesterday. Set in 1990s Chicago, this first season tells the story of an illegal construction debris dump that was built in a black neighborhood by a man with connections to the city’s mob underworld — and the ensuing undercover FBI investigation that, as Amer tells me, arguably failed to bring justice to the community. The whole narrative will play out over ten parts, with new episodes dropping every Monday.

The end of The City’s first season will mark a new beginning, as the production will then shift gears to reflect the USA Today network’s broader gambit with the project: an audio-first journalism platform that will capitalize on the organization’s broad network of local media properties. “We are an inherently local company — we have feet on the ground in 109 communities, with correspondents and bureaus in many more cities. That strength in local knowledge, we believe, is a key differentiator that we can leverage on a national level,” said Maribel Wadsworth, the publisher of USA Today and the president of the USA Today Network, pointing to the way the network pooled resources in order to help elevate the USA Gymnastics investigation, which originated at the Indy Star, into the national consciousness.

While The City’s first season is constructed around a story that Amer brought into the production, the overarching idea for the podcast, Wadsworth tells me, is to partner with the local news brands across the Gannett portfolio on efforts to build future seasons around local stories with potential national interest. At this writing, the team is already working on a story within this model, which eventually roll out as the second season of the podcast. “That story is currently being reported by a veteran watchdog reporter at one of our local papers and a field producer there,” said Amer. “That reporter is bringing twenty years of local reporting experience into the mix, and we plan to shape that story for a national audience that, we hope, will be intimately about that city.” They’re keeping the identities of the paper, city, and reporter under wraps for now, but the plan is to reveal those details at the end of the first season.

Advertising sponsorships currently make up The City’s primary revenue stream. The podcast partnered with the Los Angeles-based podcast company Wondery on distribution, and I’m told that Wondery has already lined up a few sponsors ahead of launch. (The Wondery partnership also means that the podcast will be hosted on Art19.) There are plans to explore other revenue streams for future seasons, but it appears to still be early days on that front.

For USA Today, The City presents an opportunity to build an audio journalism platform that has the potential to scale. “We’ve had some success in the podcast space before,” said Maribel, singling out Accused, the true crime podcast from the Cincinnati Enquirer that I’m told brought in over 12 million downloads across its two seasons. “But what’s unique about The City is that it’s a template — we can formally apply it to investigate and explore issues in other cities.”