News podcasts in the West have matured and probably saturated current demand. The fact remains that podcasts attract younger and more educated audiences almost anywhere.
After almost three years we got a comprehensive look at the global state of news podcasts (ok, more like Western world) thanks to the 2023 edition of the Digital News Report from Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
There have been reports such as the Global’s News Podcasts: Making Headlines For Brands that gave us a sense where news podcasts are trending towards – the consumption is growing (more in quantity per listener than attracting new listeners), ads are more or less welcome and understood as a trade off for getting free content, and news podcasts are overall pretty sticky when produced well.
The 2023 Digital News Report gave us an overview of the state of news podcasts in some selected Western countries.
Side note: I get that podcasting is well understood in the West and the authors of the report have tried surveying consumption for all countries in the report in 2019 and got questionable outcomes. Which made them realise that the term and format was not understood well and probably not much differentiated from radio in some countries. But it almost feels idle using this argument four (!) years after when there are thriving podcasting scenes in Eastern Europe such as Czechia, Hungary, Slovakia or elsewhere if you look at this recent YouGov analysis. By no means is this meant to diminish all the great work of the authors of the report for which I have great respect. Let’s just say it remains a challenge many would love to see them tackle in the future, perhaps next year.
OK, back to the news podcasting trends, which are not very surprising if you have been following what’s going on in the industry for the past few years. Still, it’s nice to get some actual data on some of the trends, and I always find it refreshing and inspiring to see what leading news publishers are succeeding with.
1) Podcasts are great for attracting younger audiences
News podcasting continues to resonate with educated and younger audiences with around a third (34%) accessing a podcast monthly and 12% accessing shows relating to news and current affairs, states the report.
I cannot tell you how many times I have sat in meetings, workshops, seminars where news managers and newsroom leaders contemplated the question of how to attract younger audiences.
Sometimes, I could speak up, other times I wished someone said “let’s try podcasts”. Try being the operative word as in some markets podcasting is still evolving, but I believe the path will be the same for all in the end – more people will listen to podcasts than radio.
We are still far away from such predictions becoming reality, so let’s focus on the current state of things – reports and analysis across different countries and regions show a high affinity to podcasting for younger, more educated audiences.
My takeaway from this report is to double down on recommending every publisher in almost each region to give podcasting a go and starting with news podcasts. They can be easy to produce if you have quality content, they are sticky (once a listener gets hooked it quickly becomes a deep habit) and help attract audiences who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily consume such content.
2) Publishers are monetising podcasts by bundling
A recurring theme in country analysis in the news podcast section of the Digital News Report is monetisation.
The authors wrote that only in a few countries is the reach of news podcasts significant enough to monetise through direct advertising. They also report that in smaller markets the biggest providers depend on large platforms such as Spotify or YouTube.
Let me disagree for a minute here.
Again, looking at smaller countries not in the West where such monetisation of podcasts via platforms like Spotify is not possible and is not even in the near future plan (I know because I asked Spotify), news publishers and independent podcasting networks are finding ways to get direct advertising for podcasts.
Let’s just take Slovakia (sorry for this example again), where according to local research agency 2muse, 28% of Slovaks have listened to podcasts in the last month. The annual ad spend report from IAB Slovakia has shown that digital audio spend has increased the most year over year thanks largely to podcast ads.
There are a couple of media companies that are earning six figure revenue only from podcast ads. In such a small country with below the average listenership of podcasting from the Digital News Report I would say that media companies don’t have to rely on big platforms, but would be much better off building their audio sales muscles within. It certainly is a more sustainable strategy.
According to the report, in the United States 8% of digital subscribers pay for a newsletter written by an individual journalist or influencer and 5% pay for a podcaster or YouTuber, a trend largely confined to the US.
Paying for individual content creators will remain a niche for the foreseeable future, but using podcasts without ads or exclusive episodes or entire shows seems to be a great opportunity to enlarge the subscription bundle according to the report.
Several publishers in Germany and Scandinavia are finding ways to add podcasts to their bundle, either by creating exclusive shows or setting up standalone audio subscriptions.
3) News podcasting is male dominated
Another not surprising takeaway from the report – top news podcasts across selected countries are male dominated, with 64% in the US and 75% in the UK.
This doesn’t mean you have to look for male hosts; I would rather see more female-led news podcasts. In Czechia and Slovakia the most popular news podcasts are hosted by female journalists.
Obviously, it depends on the talent, but I think it also comes down to how the newsrooms want to be viewed from the outside.
4) The winning types of news podcasts seem to be extended chats and deep dives
Depending on the region, native podcasts or repackaged radio output are winning. In the United States, Australia, the UK, and Nordic countries, the report found that most consumption is of high-quality “native” podcasts, while elsewhere, repackaged radio output tends to dominate and there is much less investment in original content.
The report distinguishes between four main types of news podcasts:
- News round-ups (typically 1–10 minutes): Podcasts that update audiences briefly with multiple stories
- Deep dive/explanatory (typically 20 minutes): Examine one or two subjects in detail, narrative style with sound design
- Documentary (30–40 minute episodes): Narrative style series, same subject over multiple episodes
- Extended chat (up to 4 hours): Round-table discussions, informal style, personality-led
Looking at the analysis of top news podcasts in each country it is the 20-minute deep dives based on NY Times’ The Daily podcast and extended chats in informal style that dominate listener choice.
Both can be also fairly easily produced and rely mostly on the quality of the content presented and the popularity and likeability of the hosts.
If your newsroom doesn’t produce news podcasts yet, think of these two types and try to build it around these ideas.
5) YouTube vs. Spotify
Already two years ago in the Digital News Report you could see the ascendance of YouTube as a platform for podcast listening. While in Europe Spotify still dominates, in the US YouTube has taken over as the leading podcast listening platform.
It is probably caused by continued slashing of investment into podcasting by Spotify, and also by video being a more universal way of consuming content on the internet than audio.
The outcome is that more and more podcasts are spinning up a video version of their show, and YouTube is the first place they are publishing it apart from their own websites and podcast platforms.
With this trend evolving further, you can easily see YouTube overtaking Spotify in all regions.
6) Owning the users, not just the listeners
According to the report, more and more publishers, starting with public broadcasters, are making parts of their audio content exclusive to their own apps.
I confess I’m split on this trend. On one hand I absolutely understand the urge to own not only the listener via them following podcasts on podcast platforms, but also downloading an app, setting up user accounts and listening like that.
On the other hand, this is something that goes against the open nature of podcasting and for example Spotify and the likes of it have been criticised for doing.
Also, let me add that it is still pretty complicated to offer podcast subscriptions tied into the publishers’ overall subscription and it’s much easier just to offer it via your own app.
7) Leading publishers keep investing in audio and podcasting
I have always been amazed how publishers in Nordic countries have been one or more steps ahead – when it came to digital subscriptions, data analytics and also investing in digital audio and podcasting.
While you see other regions decrease investment in podcasting, Scandinavian publishers continue to push their audio strategy: exclusive podcasts, podcasts part of subscription bundles, investments into podcast app startups or acquisitions, audio articles and the use of neural voices.
The same goes for publishers like The New York Times that keep experimenting with audio, such as the latest experiment in the form of a standalone audio app.
Is the news podcast audience saturated? Yes and no
The report showed that news podcasts have seen a significant increase since 2018, but compared to overall podcast listenership hasn’t seen as much growth (see chart above).
My understanding, which is purely my interpretation of the report data, is that the current listenership of news podcasts might be saturated and there is almost certainly a correlation with the continued increase in news fatigue that is highlighted elsewhere in the report.
Additional explanation might be that news podcasts are beloved by news junkies, and they tend to listen to more news podcasts and jump at news ones right away, which could explain that the number of news podcasts is growing, but unique news podcasts listeners stagnate.
This is a challenge and also an opportunity for new podcast listeners, especially younger audiences who are growing up and exploring options for getting news.
That also means that we might come back to the idea of different podcast types and perhaps think about how to evolve them to attract new listeners.
In short, how can news podcasts better fulfill audience needs to bring in new audiences?
This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission.