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Why The New York Times bought a text-to-audio app

While nearly every publisher has built out some kind of podcast offering, few have dominated the medium as much as Slate has. The magazine’s podcasts generated 250 million downloads in 2019 and over half its revenue. Hit shows like Slow Burn, Political Gabfest, and Mike Pesca’s The Gist have audiences in the hundreds of thousands and they regularly sell out live performances.

But what most people may not know is that Slate’s early forays into podcasting were much more humble. As I documented in a 2015 article, an NPR veteran named Andy Bowers had been brought on in 2003 to produce a show that was jointly run by both NPR and Slate. Not long after the birth of podcasting as a genre, he started experimenting with the medium by simply setting up a microphone and reading Slate articles into it. The experiment was a hit; despite the low adoption of podcasting at the time, those article reads quickly amassed 10,000 regular listeners.

I thought about that anecdote recently when I read that The New York Times had purchased Audm, a company that specializes in hiring professional voice actors to convert text-based articles into audio. Audm was founded in 2007 and charges $8.99 per month to access audio adaptations of stories published by BuzzFeed, The New Yorker, Wired, and, yes, The New York Times.

But why did The New York Times buy Audm? In a world where podcast networks are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on individual seasons of narrative podcasts, and with hundreds of thousands of shows available on podcast apps, are consumers really all that hungry for listening to someone simply read a text version of an article?

In a word: yes. For the past several years, publishers have experimented with providing audio versions of their stories, and many have been surprised by how quickly their audiences embraced these products. In 2018, for instance, Bloomberg Media made audio versions of stories available on its app, and within a few months it was the second-most popular feature on the app. The Economist started offering audio version of articles back in 2007, and The Financial Times began doing so in 2017. Some of these publishers enlist their journalists to read their own articles themselves, while others utilize voice automation software that creates an audio file in mere seconds. In most cases, outlets make the audio option a feature of their apps or embed a player at the top of articles.

The most comprehensive analysis on text-to-audio adaptations came in a Nieman Foundation report titled “Audio Articles are Helping News Outlets Gain Loyal Audiences.” For it, the author Gabe Bullard interviewed several publishers that have implemented these audio products, and many claimed to see high audience engagement. “These listeners have largely moved beyond the perception — once often lobbed at audiobooks —that hearing text read aloud isn’t as effective a way of processing information as reading,” wrote Bullard, “and research offers promising support to back them up.” Economist deputy editor Tom Standage, for instance, told him that audio versions of articles allowed subscribers to complete issues when they didn’t have much time to sit down and read them. “Our evidence suggests that the audio edition is a very effective retention tool; once you come to rely on it, you won’t unsubscribe.” 

Perhaps the most encouraging results came from Zetland, a small Danish magazine. According to a Medium post from Sara Alfort, its community engagement editor, the magazine hit a “crossroad” in 2016. “We were struggling to grow,” she wrote. “Even satisfied members were leaving us.” Some of its 14,000 paying members requested audio versions of articles, and though its journalists were skeptical that such an offering would provide much value, it started introducing audio files within its app in late 2016. “The decision of publishing all articles in an audio version was a complete transformation of our media in a relatively short time. And it turned out to be a great success. In two months 40% of the consumption was audio, in less than 6 months it was 50%.” 

Today, audio versions of articles now make up 70% of content consumption time, and Zetland editors credit the move for boosting retention and audience loyalty.

Which brings me back to The New York Times and its purchase of Audm. The Grey Lady is no stranger to audio; its podcast The Daily is among the most popular in existence and it’s apparently in talks to acquire the company behind Serial. Many have wondered, though, how audio would fit within its subscription offerings. The Daily is much too popular to remove it from free podcast apps, especially since it’s an advertising juggernaut. The Times has experimented with windowing new podcast series behind its paywall before releasing them to the wider public, but thus far it hasn’t offered much in the way of subscriber-exclusive audio content.

Audm could change that dynamic, allowing The Times to offer audio versions of articles as an additional subscriber feature. The question is how it’ll be incorporated into the newspaper’s production process. Will every article get the audio treatment, or just the longform pieces published in The New York Times Magazine? Will you be able to subscribe to Audm separately, or will it simply be incorporated as an additional subscriber offering? Will it remain its own app, or be rolled into paper’s main app? Most important, will it continue to produce audio versions for other publishers like The Atlantic and BuzzFeed? 

Either way, I think this will help The New York Times in improving its value proposition and give its subscribers even more ways to consume its journalism when they’re busy doing things like commuting to work, grocery shopping, or cooking. If The Times truly hopes to reach its goal of 10 million paying subscribers by 2025, then every little bit helps.

Simon Owens is a journalist living in Washington, DC. His weekly newsletter provides deep analysis on the media industry. You can find it over here.