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Can Podcasts Save Local News?

Launching this winter, City Cast hopes podcasts can be the economic lifeline local news has been looking for.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

No one knows what to do about the crisis in local news. Recent research from Pew Research Center includes a host of depressing statistics: More than 50 percent of all newsroom jobs have been lost since 2009. One in five media workers lives in New York or Los Angeles. One in four large newspapers has laid off employees since 2017. This year has, once again, been a nightmare for the media industry, with job losses in the thousands amid a raging pandemic. 

The causes of the decline in local news are varied—technological change, the rise of social media, private equity, ongoing fallout from the 2008 economic collapse—and the consequences are severe. A quarter of all newspapers have died in the last 15 years, leaving news deserts scattered throughout the country. Many of those that have survived are shells of their former selves. Important stories about corruption, crime, and everyday life go unreported. The local news crisis is also a democratic crisis, leaving citizens uninformed about vital issues. 

The biggest problem facing new local news ventures is that the economic model newspapers relied on for more than a century—advertising—is no longer viable. Google and Facebook have swallowed the ad industry over the last decade, driving down revenue and making it difficult to support the large newsrooms of journalism’s heyday. 

City Cast, a new venture, is trying to buck that trend with a model based on two of the industry’s rare bright spots: podcasting and newsletters. The project is being led by former Slate editor in chief and Atlas Obscura CEO David Plotz, in conjunction with Graham Holdings, which formerly owned The Washington Post and currently owns Slate, the podcasting company Megaphone, and several local TV stations. Set to launch this winter, City Cast aims to fill the void being left by traditional media—and to restore some of the spunk and personality of an older era. 

Recent efforts to rebuild the tattered local news industry have largely focused on replicating older models. Report for America places young journalists in newsrooms. Facebook and Google have pledged to highlight existing local news sources and provide millions in grants—penance, perhaps, for decimating the industry. Late last month, Axios announced that it would be launching newsletters in four cities—Denver, Des Moines, Minneapolis, and Tampa—focusing on business, technology, and education. 

Cooked up by Plotz and Graham Holdings CEO Tim O’Shaughnessy, City Cast is taking a different approach. “The idea,” Plotz told me, is to do “a daily news-y podcast and also a daily newsletter that serves as a conduit, passion point, and information and community-building source for places” that are being underserved by media.

“What I think is great about podcasting,” he said, “is the ability to channel emotion and passion and curiosity and personality—to have hosts in a bunch of cities who think of themselves as a real clarifying voice of the city. Someone who feels that this is the best city in the world and who also feels that it’s really fucked up and needs to be fixed.” 

City Cast is looking for hosts who are also guides to their respective locales. Plotz cited Oprah’s pre-national-fame work at A.M. Chicago, and legendary New York City columnists Jimmy Breslin and Walter Winchell as analogs. In terms of podcasting, Plotz cited Michael Barbaro, the reporter turned host of The New York Times’ insanely popular The Daily podcast. “I would argue that the most important employee is Michael Barbaro, a voice who channels the news to us that is distinctive and curious and passionate and idiosyncratic. If City Cast succeeds we will have found hosts that understand that, and producers who can create that sense of feeling and connection.” 

The idea is also to create a sense of community—the kind of thing typically seen in right-wing and sports radio. (Vulture’s Nicholas Quah cited sports pope Mike Francesca as another possible inspiration—though let’s hope that City Cast’s hosts aren’t broadcasting for six and a half hours a day.) Alt-weeklies (Plotz got his start at Washington, D.C.’s City Paper and cites former editors David Carr and Jack Shafer as models), with their intense local focus and emphasis on voice, are another important analog. Plotz, of course, has a great deal of experience as a podcaster himself—he has co-hosted Slate’s Political Gabfest with Emily Bazelon and John Dickerson for the last 15 years.  

City Cast does not seek to replicate or replace local news as it currently exists. Its teams will have a small footprint by design—at first they may only be made up of a few employees, keeping expenses low while they build an audience. As a result, don’t expect them to solve the expanding news desert problem, at least not at first. “We want to go to places where there’s media, but it’s not fulfilling every need that people have,” Plotz told me. 

City Cast is being cagey about where it will launch—the company wants to find the right people as much as it wants to find the right place—but Plotz told me it is highly likely that Washington, D.C., will be one of its first locations. One could easily see midsize cities—Denver, Phoenix, Nashville, Austin—as ideal launching pads. Plotz is hopeful that the venture can also integrate into Graham Holdings’ existing audio and TV news properties. 

One issue that has already cropped up is representation, especially given that each city will have only one “host.” As Plotz told me, “It’s hard to attempt to speak broadly for a city if you’re talking out of just a single perspective, which is why we need people who are incredibly curious and also see that and know that about themselves. I’m not saying that in every city that every staff is going to perfectly mirror the demographics of that city. But we do need for this organization broadly to have a real variety of voices and backgrounds. One of the things you note as you go back and look at the history of the ‘voices’ of these cities is that a lot of them were white guys, often pretty conservative white guys. That’s not going to fly.”  

Podcasting is appealing economically because it is, with subscriptions, the only healthy revenue stream in media—at least for now. It resembles, in some ways, the internet before Facebook and Google took over. There are a number of creators and advertisers, and rates are generally pretty high. The Ringer was recently sold to Spotify for $300 million on the strength of its dozens of podcasts. With high ad rates, podcasting revenue can fund a decent-sized media organization. One could easily see a small newsroom growing out of a successful podcast and newsletter launch—a sustainable, if smaller, way to fix the local news problem. 

That, of course, is dependent on the podcasting advertising market staying healthy, something that is far from guaranteed, especially given Spotify’s recent acquisition of several audio companies. Concentration has been a disaster for media, and the success of City Cast, as with many other audio companies, is predicated on a healthy marketplace. 

For much of the last decade, media was all about scale—growing the biggest possible thing at the fastest possible pace. City Cast, however, is taking a different approach, targeting small communities. “We’re not building something for the nation,” Plotz told me. “We’re building something for particular places.”