Issue 228,  published October 1, 2019

Your Daily Opinion

I can’t help but feel sympathetic towards anyone launching a new daily news podcast at the moment. It’s a really tough gig, partly because of the existing landscape they’re entering — The Daily has two million listeners a day and counting, with a style that newcomers often feel they must either closely imitate or consciously reject — and partly because the sheer maddening speed of the global news cycle.

This is the context that the Evening Standard, a daily evening newspaper that caters to London and the surrounding suburbs, is launching its first foray into daily news podcasting. The show is called The Leader and the first episode dropped on 30 September. It’s named for the paper’s daily editorial column, and editor George Osborne said in the announcement that “Our editorial column has always spoken for our readers — now you can hear it too.”

Some background on the cultural context of this publication, for those not particularly familiar with British media: founded in 1827, the paper has been publishing in one form or another for almost 200 years. In 2009, it was bought by Russian oligarch (and former KGB agent) Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny, who soon after their purchase went through made the newspaper largely free, distributed on the street and in transport hubs. It has an average circulation of just over 800,000 copies per issue, but last year reported losses of over £12 million and has recently cut jobs in a merger between the print and online teams.

Osborne, a former Conservative MP and Chancellor of the Exchequer, became the editor in 2017 after being sacked as a government minister by Theresa May when she became Prime Minister. (He stepped down from parliament a month after taking the Standard gig.) However, his status as a former leading light of the Conservative Party — and lack of previous journalistic experience — has proven controversial in some quarters, especially since the region that the paper serves has increasingly voted for other parties in recent years, Labour in particular.

I tend to find that the Evening Standard is a polarising topic among my fellow British journalists: for some it’s just a local freesheet that ends up mostly unread on the floor of tube carriages at the end of every day, and for others it’s a major and significant media outlet in the capital. It all depends on your point of view, I think.

Lucy Hunter Johnston, an executive editor at the paper and an executive producer of the new daily podcast, explained that the Evening Standard has been building up its audio operation in the last year. Among its previous output has been a limited series on technology Women Tech Charge, which came out earlier this year, and the formation of a smart speaker bulletin team.

Hunter Johnson said that the idea for The Leader podcast came out of discussions about the Evening Standard’s strengths as a brand. “We were looking at what are the strengths of the paper, what is it that we’re known for,” she told me over the phone. “And increasingly, with George Osborne as the editor, politics is a space that is important to us, as is opinion.” The Leader will not be “just a straight news bulletin,” she added, but will rather offer “opinion and analysis” on the day’s agenda from the newsroom.

Adapting a paper’s opinion pages for headphones isn’t an entirely novel concept. The New York Times has The Argument, which uses a weekly format rather than a daily one, and The Guardian’s daily news show Today in Focus often features opinion segment, though it doesn’t often lead an episode. By putting the opinion front and centre, the team at The Standard feel like it can cut through in the crowded daily news podcast space.

They’re also hoping to use audio to reach out beyond the area that the print newspaper serves. “The proposition for Evening Standard digital is to be serving urban audiences or audiences that are interested in urban things, in London but also in other large urban areas in the UK and around the world. So the work that we’re doing in audio is an extension of that really,” said Chris Stone said, the paper’s executive producer of video and audio. The Standard launched an office in New York about a year ago with the same goal in mind, and the smart speaker bulletins are also aimed at a global audience. This is a trend I’ve been noticing more broadly for a while — British content is often an easier sell to non-British readers/listeners, especially those who don’t have access to the BBC.

The show’s production will be closely integrated with the existing newsroom, Hunter Johnson explained, with the host attending the leader conference, which happens every morning around 8 am, and then the script developed alongside the print and online versions of that day’s column. The aim is to get each episode live at 4 pm, ready for the evening commute — the newspaper starts hitting stands at around 2pm each day. The 15-minute long episodes will also include interviews with journalists in the newsroom and audio from interviews conducted with figures relevant to that day’s topics. Although George Osborne will likely be a regular guest on the show (he writes a lot of the leader columns, I was told), he isn’t hosting — that honour goes to team member David Marsland. And although politics will feature heavily, other topics will also be covered.

The team at the Evening Standard is aware that they’re coming fairly late to the audio space. “I mean, there’s a lot of very successful daily podcasts and I think that part of the advantage of not having the first mover advantage is that you get to see what your competitors are doing well and what they’re doing badly,” Stone said. As well as being their first daily show, this is also their first regularly publishing podcast.

The Standard is working with Acast on hosting and monetisation, although they aren’t launching with any big sponsorship deals in place. The opinion-centric nature of the show brings with it some challenges in that regard, Hunter Johnson said. “There’s an interesting dynamic going on here because obviously we’re creating something that we’re saying is sort of the voice of the paper,” she noted. “Now that means that we’ve got to be super careful about how we approach something like sponsorship because we don’t want to be seen to be saying that, you know, the paper endorses a particular thing in and of itself.” With the newspaper and website being free to access, the “podcasts as subscription pipeline” route that other publications have exploited isn’t open to them either.

For now, Stone said, the primary goal is to build an audience. “I’m seeing it as a network of audio products. So this is all about a building habit forming relationships with our audience wherever they are,” he said. The Leader will be produced until the end of the year as a three month trial, and then the project will be reassessed.

I have to say: this is a fascinating experiment. Explicitly basing a podcast on a print property and moving away from the news angle to opinion is something of a gamble, and I’ll be interested to see whether this small team (they have four full-time people on audio, plus contributions from others across the newsroom) that has little track record in regular podcast publishing can grow an audience fast enough to make an impact. The show launches into an unprecedentedly polarised, febrile political environment, and I can’t work out yet whether that will be its best opportunity for success or its greatest weakness.