Formats Unpacked: The Daily

How a format changed the way podcasts do news

Hi all,

When I wrote about Ros Atkins’ Social Video Explains in April I noticed that we’d already unpacked quite a few news-related formats. For a long time, The News was a single format. Then came satellite TV and with it rolling news. The internet gave us news in many different shapes and tones. Today’s format kick-started a new way for news to be presented to podcast listeners, becoming an icon of the genre.

Doing the unpacking today is Carol Nahra who previously unpacked the wonderful Gogglebox. Carol is a documentary journalist, programmer, and lecturer based in London. She’s written extensively about the UK documentary landscape for industry publications and if you love docs you must check out her Docs on Screens blog.

Over to Carol…

What’s the format?

A short daily news podcast from the New York Times. Launched in early 2017 (at the start of the reign of Trump), The Daily quickly became the Rolls Royce of an increasingly long line of similar (read copycat) daily news programmes. It’s consistently one of the top two podcasts in the US with two million downloads per episode, four times those that read the print edition of the NYT. The Daily also plays on public radio stations across the US. 

As with all the best formats, it’s deceptively simple on paper, masking the considerable resources and effort that underline the brand.  The approach is for the host, usually the honey toned Michael Barbaro, to interview a NYT reporter about a subject that’s playing out in the news - usually either a story from the front pages or a trend to be aware of. Add lots of sound bites from archive and the specialist’s on the ground reporting. The reporter sets the context for the listener who might be coming to the story completely fresh, while Barbaro teases out why exactly the listener should care. Each episode focuses primarily on a single story and dives into it in a satisfying enough depth that you feel informed, but also wrap up after roughly half an hour. 

Some of the most impactful and memorable Daily episodes vary from this standard format and push the boat out creatively. A recent episode commemorating some of the one million COVID victims consisted nearly entirely of the voices of their loved ones, painting a picture of “what it’s like to grieve when the rest of the world has moved on.” 

What’s the magic that makes it special?

The Daily works because of the combination of high quality news reporting, heavy resources, access and audio flourishes (indeed it boasts an increasingly large crew of producers and sound designers). An important ingredient is the familiar audio beats of each episode from the opening music and introductory line to the coda made up of headlines of other notable stories “Here’s what else you need to know today….”.

A big part of the brand stems from Barbaro’s imprint. His voice is warm, his style empathetic and he’s very good at summarising, in a seemingly natural way, often quite complex issues, as he interacts with reporters. His affirmative-sounding noises (including abundant mmmm hmmmm’s and huh’s, mimicked brilliantly here by Adam Buxton in the Important Infopod Squarespace ad) dress the episodes with a warm familiarity. 

Usually, Barbaro stays on the right side of the faux-naïf style he does so well - pretending that he is learning for the first time information that he clearly already knows. This faltered a bit in the recent dissection of explosive testimony in the January 6 hearings, where executive assistant Cassidy Hutchinson described in detail Trump’s temper tantrums at not being allowed to join the Capitol rioters. Barbaro opened the discussion saying “That has to have been the most astonishing congressional hearing I have ever watched” and then went on to feign surprise repeatedly when in discussion with congressional reporter Luke Broadwater.

The magic also stems from the sheer depth and quality of the journalistic resources the producers can draw upon, helping explain the world around us. So Trump expert Maggie Haberman can help get inside Trump’s brain, Dr Antony Fauci can explain the latest COVID developments and London bureau chief Mark Landler can speculate as to whether partygate will bring down Boris Johnson.  Reporters are happy to participate, even when they are deep in the midst of their work. After all, it brings them to a whole new ginormous audience, which skews younger and trendier than their readers. In addition to covering the front page stories, episodes often delve into the more in-depth reporting taking place on the sidelines such as this fascinating episode on unseen trauma of America’s drone pilots

Favourite episode?

My favourite type of Daily is one that covers something I was vaguely aware of was happening, but didn’t know anything about, or understand it. (This is of course the sweet spot that the producers are aiming for, with their authoritative “here’s what you need to know” assurances.) Recently I enjoyed finally understanding why there was such a shortage of baby formula in the US and how NFTs have taken the art world by storm, (presented by the Daily’s very able number two host Sabrina Tavernisa). Also memorable is the four-part series looking at a single Texas high school’s struggles during the pandemic. 

Similar formats?

How long is a piece of string? The Washington Post’s Post Reports and the Guardian’s Today in Focus, Slate’s What Next and Vox’s Today, Explained to name but four.

Thanks Carol.

We’re currently working on a research project of our own about how people find, use and share stories in this age of hybrid working. From very early conversations we’ve been having about our own media habits, how we engage with news has changed for a few of us. It will be interesting to see what new formats come out of this period, and which, if any, pave the way for others to follow as The Daily did.

If you’d like to be interviewed as part of the research, or you have a favorite format you want to unpack, get in touch by replying to this email or in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading,

Hugh

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