This is a series on Better News a) to showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Glenn Cook, executive editor and senior vice president for news; Belinda Englman, vice president for digital; and Jim Prather, executive director of digital programming, all of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Reed Redmond, a now-former podcast producer at the Review-Journal, led the project. The Review-Journal was part of the 2019-20 Poynter Local News Innovation Table Stakes cohort.
Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?
Answer: In the summer of 2019, we had a modest lineup of podcasts, but all of them were talk focused. Our podcast lineup included one covering the Vegas Golden Knights NHL team; one covering the NFL’s Oakland (soon to be Las Vegas) Raiders; a weekly interview podcast led by our entertainment columnist; and an occasional podcast on boxing and the Ultimate Fighting Championship. All were produced in-house. All were focused on supplementing existing areas of digital and print coverage. The strategy: Pitch our podcasts as content that provides depth and context that can’t be found anywhere else. We were not focused on telling original stories exclusively through podcasting.
The Review-Journal is a privately owned company with a news staff of about 130, far more people than most markets of 2 million-plus people. Narrative-serial podcasts were taking off all around us, especially those in the true crime genre. Las Vegas is literally a bottomless well when it comes to true crime storytelling opportunities. And we knew there was a fanatical audience — locally, nationally and internationally — for this kind of content.
To make a splash in podcasting and sustain our efforts through sponsorship revenue — we needed to compete in this space. We believed high-quality podcasting was essential to building and retaining a loyal, local paying digital audience and diversifying digital revenue.
Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?
A: Our initiative was tied to Table Stake No. 1 (Serve targeted audiences with targeted content); Table Stake No. 2 (Publish on the platforms used by your targeted audiences); Table Stake No. 5 (Diversify and grow the ways you earn revenue from the audiences you build); and Table Stake No. 6 (Partner to expand your capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible cost).
Q: How did you go about solving the problem?
A: In July 2019, 10 months after we launched our paywall, we hired Reed Redmond, a dedicated podcast producer, to get us where we wanted to go. Redmond had reported, written and produced narrative podcasts previously. He would be the reporter, writer and producer of our narrative podcast initiative.
Then we started the process of making our most important decision: choosing the right story to tell. It was a collaborative process involving company leaders and staff. In working our way toward a subject with wide appeal for audience and sponsorship, we zeroed in on the city’s organized crime history.
In addition to having decades of coverage of the subject in past editions of the Review-Journal to draw from, we had a too-good-to-be-true partnership opportunity: the Smithsonian-affiliated Mob Museum, located about a mile from our offices in downtown Las Vegas.
The museum’s content chief is a former longtime Review-Journal editor and executive. We knew we were onto something after a single lunch meeting. The museum had long wanted to produce a podcast but lacked the technical resources required.
The museum agreed to give us access to its vast audio archives, contacts with sources, its social media following and email list, and interviews with its experts. In exchange, the museum would be able to attach its name to a medium it had never previously entered.
In August 2019, the partnership was formalized and “Mobbed Up: The Fight for Las Vegas” was born. About eight months later, on May 26, 2020, its first episodes were released. The 11th and final episode of the series was released July 28, 2020.
Q: What worked?
A: The subject filled a niche in a popular genre of podcasts. In choosing the subject of the podcast, we asked two big questions: Does it appeal to both local and nationwide audiences? Has anyone done a podcast like this?
A podcast on the history of organized crime in Las Vegas checked both boxes. Organized crime is a subject the Review-Journal has reported on for decades, it appeals to a local and national audience, and it had never been covered in the form of a serial podcast.
The launch strategy we employed also proved successful. In addition to ongoing promotion through social media, email lists, print ads and digital ads, we made a concerted effort to promote the podcast as much as possible during its launch week.
That included ads on other true crime podcasts, including a paid trailer release on “Mafia,” the highly popular organized crime podcast published by Audioboom.
The Review-Journal’s local partnership with the Mob Museum also helped in this effort. Not only did the museum provide resources to help create the content, but it also helped us promote the series to existing audiences with an expressed interest in organized crime.
The result of this launch strategy? A massive boost in visibility. The podcast reached No. 57 on the Apple Podcasts “Top Podcasts” charts and No. 11 on the Apple Podcasts “True Crime” charts in the United States during its launch week.
Five months after its launch, the podcast has received about 450,000 downloads. About 20 percent of those total downloads have come from Nevada and California, and the podcast has reached all 50 U.S. states and at least 97 countries.
The series has proved to be highly engaging for listeners. Apple Podcasts analytics show average consumption rates more than 100 percent for all but one episode — meaning on average, listeners are not only completing each episode but going back and listening to episodes a second time.
If we assume an average consumption rate of 100 percent for all episodes across all platforms, then between May 26 and July 27, 2020 (before the release of the final episode), listeners spent more than 9 million total minutes listening to the podcast.
Q: What didn’t work?
A: The podcast was able to draw in many of the Review-Journal’s digital readers, true-crime-serial fans from around the world and those interested specifically in organized crime. But, despite telling people where to go and how to listen, including a direct link on our website, we likely failed to connect with a great many print subscribers who may not already listen to podcasts or know how to do so.
Considering the podcast’s appeal to older, longtime residents who lived through the mob era of Las Vegas, we initially could have undertaken more personal efforts to show these readers and other residents how to listen to a podcast. To broaden our podcast audience for a planned “Mobbed Up” Season 2, we were considering reaching out to large senior groups, clubs and recreation and community centers, although we now will face tremendous challenges with direct engagement amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?
A: We knew that the first few days after releasing the first episode would be important, but even so, we were surprised by how quickly the podcast started to pick up steam.
By the end of our launch week, we were already reassessing our goals (in a good way), to the extent that we doubled or tripled our download estimates for the series.
And although we launched the series without a sponsor, one came calling after the first episode — Pro Group Management, a workers’ compensation administrator — to sponsor the rest of the series for a sum that made the project more than worth our while. An old local restaurant once frequented by mob figures, the Golden Steer Steakhouse, also stepped forward to sponsor a bonus, wrap-up episode. Both sponsors were new advertising clients.
We started “Mobbed Up” with no plans for a second season. But achieving audience and sponsorship successes quickly had us thinking about Season 2.
Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?
A: Perhaps if we had worked harder to teach print readers what a podcast is and how to listen to a podcast, we could have used “Mobbed Up” to promote the rest of our podcast lineup — which now covers politics, entertainment, e-sports and our two major-league sports teams — as well as our news app, newsletters and deep, award-winning video content. We could have picked up more listeners and given them a new appreciation of their subscription value.
We have learned that high-quality podcasts can still pick up a sizable, committed audience in 2020, despite the flood of new podcasts over the past few years.
As we look to our next podcasting endeavor beyond “Mobbed Up,” we are searching for ways to involve more sections of our newsroom. Perhaps an additional reporter would help turn a series around more quickly, or a dedicated videographer would give us more engaging content to pair with the podcast series.
Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?
A: Every community has great stories to tell. Think about partnering with a museum, historical society or a university history department to tell one of yours. Work with partners who have their own audiences for content. Identify stories that have not yet been told in a podcast. Remember that your news organization’s archives are your greatest assets. Use them every chance you get.
A good audio story needs good audio. We used a freelance sound engineer for parts of the podcast to improve its quality and listener experience, as well as for the composition of theme music. We used sound effects and voice actors. We also conducted many audio interviews and put a premium on historic, archived audio from the Mob Museum. Serials have to leave your audience wanting more. The end of every episode has to be so compelling listeners can’t resist the next one. So you need great material at the start and end of every episode.
Be prepared to dedicate months of work to a great narrative, serial podcast. Plan. Outline a series and identify all potential interview subjects. Get interview commitments. A good audio interview can take many hours, but might lead to only a few minutes of total audio published. Having someone with audio expertise and experience dealing with podcast platforms, especially Apple, is hugely beneficial.
Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?
A: Keep selling and communicating the success stories with your sales team. Share samples of the audio that sales teams can pitch to sponsors, and sell them on the potential of a podcast to explode in popularity. Also, take the time to sell your own staff on the project. Our publisher was out front encouraging employees and families to listen to our new podcast.
Then keep going. Work on “Mobbed Up” Season 2 is well underway. We lost Redmond to another career opportunity shortly after the first season of “Mobbed Up” wrapped. But we learned a lot from him, and a member of our investigative team is taking the lead on Season 2. We’re targeting the first quarter of 2021 for the completion and release of Season 2. We have an audience, so we intend to keep providing it with great content. We also are more likely to produce podcasts to accompany future enterprise and investigative work.