How VTDigger revamped its podcast strategy
A couple weeks ago I wrote about the challenges WBUR and The Boston Globe faced when they attempted to create a daily sports podcast. After that story was published, I heard from a number of readers who wanted to share their experiences of local podcasting.
This week we’re going to dig into one of those examples: the Vermont-based nonprofit VTDigger’s weekly The Digger Deep podcast. The podcast is a great example of how a news organization learned from failure and adjusted its strategy.
This week’s issue of Solution Set is also special because we’re introducing a new writer for the first time. Anh Nguyen, the Lenfest Institute’s spectacular summer intern, reported and wrote this issue, and I’m going to turn it over to her now to tell you more about VTDigger’s approach to podcasting.
Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one neat thing in journalism, share lessons and point you toward other useful resources. — Joseph Lichterman
Here’s Anh with the TLDR of what you need to know:
• The Challenge: VTDigger launched a podcast in 2016 to grow its audience in a state where people have deep connections to radio stations. But the first version of the podcast was a flop, so the nonprofit newsroom had to rethink its approach.
• The Strategy: The newsroom hired an experienced producer to relaunch its podcast, which is simulcast on a local community radio station. It believed that the podcast would bring in younger audiences and extend the life of its coverage.
• The Numbers: The Deeper Dig, VTDigger’s flagship podcast, receives an average of 8,000 to 10,000 downloads per episode. The nonprofit produces four podcasts in total.
• The Lessons: Keeping news fresh beyond an initial story is important to create impact for their investigative work. Consistency and regular production schedules will create listening habits and build podcast listenership.
• The Future: VTDigger is considering a possible miniseries and increasing its partnership with local radio stations.
VTDigger was founded in 2009 by journalist Anne Galloway with one mission: to bring quality investigative and watchdog journalism to the people of Vermont, who had seen many local newsrooms downsize or shut down during the financial crisis.
VTDigger is a nonprofit news organization. Its operations rely heavily on grants and individual contributions, as well as sponsorship and advertising. Now, nearly a decade after its creation, VTDigger is one of the largest news organizations in the state.
But even as it has grown, VTDigger wanted to find ways to better serve Vermonters — which is why it decided to get into podcasting.
In 2016, VTDigger launched a weekly political podcast. It received a grant from the Institute for Nonprofit News and support from a local sponsor to help with the launch. It bought audio equipment and turned a closet in the newsroom into a small studio.
The podcast, hosted and produced by a VTDigger reporter with radio experience, launched that summer covering Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ run for president and the state’s legislative session.
It was a flop. “We made every mistake you can think of,” Galloway told an INN report about the project last year. (More on that case study in Want to Know More?)
In April 2017, VTDigger hired Digital Community Editor Mike Dougherty to lead VTDigger’s social media and multimedia journalism — including another shot at podcasts. Before moving to Vermont, Dougherty worked for StoryCorps and has lots of audio experience.
“We want people to come to our website, but we also know they are on other platforms. We see podcast as a platform. We want to meet the readers where they’re at,” Dougherty told me.
Shortly after joining the nonprofit, Doughtery launched The Deeper Dig, its flagship weekly podcast which highlights one key story in Vermont. The format varies but it often involves Dougherty interviewing a reporter about a story they covered that week or he’ll occasionally produce his own reporting. He’ll sometimes also follow up on a big news story that’s a few weeks old to see what changes VTDigger’s reporting had brought about.
“The podcast’s content matches really closely with whichever stories are doing well on our website,” said Dougherty. “We are all about hard news, breaking news and investigative work, so the podcast’s mission is also to serve the interest of people in our state.”
The Deeper Dig does more than just reuse stories from VTDigger’s text-based coverage. Dougherty understood that podcast listeners appreciate new analysis and also that audio storytelling requires different components, such as sound bites that help illustrate what was happening in the story.
Each episode is about a half-hour long, and new episodes are released every Friday. Dougherty asks the reporter to expand on their coverage and has them respond to and introduce audio clips related to the story. This is an approach he emulated from The Daily, The New York Times’ daily news podcast.
Editors and reporters appreciate the opportunity to get personal with their reporting while presenting new angles to listeners, Dougherty said.
He spends two days per week focusing entirely on production, painstakingly finding clips and voices to transform a conversation with a reporter into a podcast episode
“Listeners want a different experience and even when I recycled the stories other beat reporters have done or produced a series of stories, I’d look for some tapes or recordings, for example, of state legislators debating a bill,” said Dougherty.
One thing I learned from my interview with Dougherty is that Vermonters are deeply loyal to their local radio stations.
Dougherty explained that because Vermont is so mountainous it’s difficult for stations to transmit. As a result, listeners can only consistently hear a few stations at a time, and in return, listeners depend on them.
Because radio is so important in Vermont, VTDigger realized it was competing with existing public radio programming and also sought out a partnership with a local community radio station, Burlington’s WBTV-LP, which airs each episode four times a week.
“[Podcasting] is not our only approach to audio. Terrestrial radio is also a gateway for our content to reach Vermonters,” said Dougherty. (Remember the mountains?)
Beside The Deeper Dig, VTDigger also produces Before Your Time, a monthly podcast in collaboration with the Vermont Historic Society and the Vermont Humanities Council. Before Your Time ties an artifact from the past to the state history and looks at the people, events, and ideas surrounding it.
VTDigger also produces VTDigger Audio Clips, a collection of audio clips accompanying news articles, and Writers For Recovery, a recording series of writing workshops focused on stories of addiction and recovery.
VTDigger has nine full-time reporters. VTDigger has become a frequent news source for Vermonters. The website averages more than 300,000 unique views per month.
Dougherty is the only one responsible for producing The Deeper Dig weekly.
“I try to tap people from the newsroom who are the subject matter experts and leverage the knowledge they have,” he said. “The podcast wouldn’t have been done if it was only me doing the reporting. Every week is a collaboration.”
Each episode takes two full days to produce and averages 8,000 to 10,000 downloads. Dougherty’s goal is to grow the audience by 15 percent this year, though he said he’s skeptical of podcast metrics.
“I’m skeptical at podcast metrics because of their technical flaws,” he said “Sometimes traffic spikes on the website and stories getting picked up by national readers could lead to higher podcast metrics.”
VTDigger’s podcast efforts started with a $35,000 grant from the Institute for Nonprofit News Innovation Fund grant, a two-year Knight Foundation-funded $1 million program that awarded small grants to nonprofit newsrooms to support business innovation.
It also signed a $5,000 deal with a local sponsor to underwrite the early podcast. (More on VTDigger’s approach to sponsorship in The Future.)
In its first year, the podcast was downloaded 107,797 times, according to INN. “Overall website traffic grew and some of the biggest spikes in page views happened on days when VTDigger featured podcast episodes inside breaking news stories,” INN reported.
• Consistency, consistency, consistency: Producing a podcast is definitely a lot of work. In the first iteration of the podcast in 2016, Mark Johnson, a local radio veteran and VTDigger’s senior reporter and editor, hosted and produced the podcast. But he also had other responsibilities, including writing and editing stories for VTDigger’s website.
Because of the production challenges, Johnson and VTDigger struggled to get the podcast out on a weekly basis, and it didn’t take off.
Once he joined VTDigger, Dougherty learned from this experience as he designed the Deeper Dig. He decided to tie the show to the site’s existing coverage to give it some focus and structure.
Because his position is structured around the podcast, Dougherty is given the time he needs to produce the show on a regular basis and also experiment with different formats.
“People want something they can count on so the biggest key is consistency,” Dougherty told me. “We have set plans to engage readers weekly and monthly. Podcasts also engender habits so if someone listens to us on their commute at the same time every week, we need to hold our end of the bargain.”
• You CAN have it all: Beside producing The Deeper Dig, Dougherty is also responsible for VTDigger’s social media and comment system. He also shoots, reports and produces his own stories for the site.
“Newsrooms are hesitant in hiring a full-time to do podcast so even though producing podcast takes a lot of time,” Dougherty said. “I have to limit it to two days a week so I can do other things.”
But the newsroom’s response has been more than welcoming. His job is structured to give him the time he needs to produce the podcast, and others help pick up the slack when he’s working on the show.
“You have to approach a podcast … with an incredible amount of focus and discipline,” Galloway told INN. “Multimedia products need the same level of production quality and consistency that the online print products do.”
• Keep news fresh: The Deeper Dig is not simply a weekly news recap. It moves the conversation forward by adding new voices, seeking different angles and blending the reporting with storytelling. It’s a fresh way to bring back old coverage that still matters to Vermonters even when the news cycle has eclipsed it.
Readers also want to know what happens after an investigative piece comes out. The podcast is the perfect place to expand on and follow up – a post-mortem of sorts where reporters dissect the behind-the-scenes and what ensued after the article was published
“We often publish a story and the next day it’s a knockoff,” Dougherty said. “So the podcast is one way to keep a story alive. We look back and augment great reporting.”
• Money: Aside from its initial sponsor, the Deeper Dig has yet to find new sponsors, but now it’s shopping for new support. Nonetheless, Dougherty was optimistic that it was only a matter of time before it signed up a new sponsor.
“Unlike a Facebook ad that you might scroll past, podcasts capture the attention of listeners in a captive space,” he said. “This is huge plus for underwriters who are looking to sell ad placement.”
Thus far, VTDigger’s priority has been to do excellent journalism, improve production quality and build a listening base that is appealing to sponsors. VTDigger, however, is also thinking about its podcasts as part of its overall digital output.
Last year, Galloway told INN that VTDigger would ultimately like to raise $600,000 from 30 sponsors each contributing $20,000 annually to support the podcasts and the site’s other multimedia coverage.
While it still hasn’t reached that goal, VTDigger uses its podcast to build its brand identity and drive listeners to its websites, which helps benefit its membership offerings.
• Narrative podcasts: Some of the most successful local podcasts have been narrative series that are interesting and appealing to an audience beyond just the local listenership.
VTDigger is thinking about how or if it could produce a more narrative Serial-like podcast, Dougherty said. A miniseries with a worthy storyline could bring national and international audience to VTDigger, giving it a shot to promote the site more widely.
“For everything we do, we try to provide a valuable service to the audience. [A] podcast is a way to deliver that,” Dougherty added.
• More collaboration: VTDigger already broadcasts its show on local community radio, but it’d like to pursue partnerships with other local radio stations in the state.
“The fact that people can listen to [our podcasts] cements our independent player status. Even though sometimes they can’t tell it’s us playing on the radio, we will continue to focus on our investigative work and core missions,” Dougherty said.
VTDigger already has collaborations with others in the state. For example, Doughterty produces VTDigger Minute, a weekly news roundup that airs on the local PBS Station.
The site would like to find additional ways to expose its journalism — and podcasts — to more Vermonters.
Want to know more?
• Tim Griggs recently published a terrific case study on VTDigger’s for INN and Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. It provides excellent insight into how VTDigger has grown and thrived over the years
• Here’s the INN report on VTDigger’s podcasting that we’ve referenced throughout this report.
• Nieman Lab’s Christine Schmidt wrote a great story last year about VTDigger’s attempts to diversify its revenue streams, including through podcasting.
• For more on the state of podcasting in general, Nieman Lab this week published an insightful and long piece on the future of podcasting from Tom Webster, VP of strategy at Edison Research.
Anything to add?
Hey, this is Yossi taking over from Anh again. Last week, I covered Texas Monthly‘s approach to blocking ads. Reader Rick David wrote in to share why he uses an adblocker, and he gave me permission to share it here with you:
I guess that you can count me in as one of those individuals who have installed an Ad Blocker on my internet browser.
It’s not that I am opposed to being inundated with ads, although that can indeed be a problem, it is my strong desire to not have my use of the internet tracked by unseen powers that be.
Through my use of Ghostery, I am shocked when I see that 20, 30 or more programs are attempting to watch what I do, when i do it and where I go. All of this is without my acknowledgement and who knows where this data is being aggregated.
I don’t approve of the wild wild west approach to unknown data collection. I think that most internet users would be shocked to learn about how many ‘under the radar’ services are, in essence, hijacking my personal data.
We always welcome reader feedback, and love to highlight your thoughts here. We’re working on some other ways to make Solution Set more conversational, and I’m excited to share more on that soon!
See you next Thursday!
Creative Commons photo by Patrick Breitenbach