How the LA Times built out its podcast operations

The New York Times gets a lot of credit within the media industry for the blockbuster success of its podcast The Daily, but The Los Angeles Times was also an early pioneer within the medium. Its narrative true crime podcast Dirty John generated over 30 million downloads and was adapted into a TV show for Bravo. The newspaper has since gone on to launch ambitious shows chronicling the criminal trial of Bill Cosby and the famous murders committed by Betty Broderick.

I recently interviewed Clint Schaff, VP of strategy and development at the LA Times, about the paper’s podcast productions. He walked me through how shows get made, their monetization strategy, and his views on selling IP to TV studios and Spotify.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

How the surprise success of Dirty John expanded The LA Times’s podcast ambitions

Back in 2017, most traditional news organizations were still dabbling in podcasts, and it wasn’t clear to everyone that they’d turn into a real business. Dirty John’s massive success caused the newspaper’s higher ups to take the medium seriously. “A lot of people credit Dirty John as being, along with shows like Serial, the first podcast they’d ever listened to. For us, it certainly opened our eyes to the storytelling potential of audio, but also the revenue potential and the intellectual property potential for television derivatives. ... So then we immediately went in to try to develop some more shows. You saw those come out last summer, and we've been kind of trucking them out on a regular basis ever since.”

Since then, the Times has expanded its podcast slate considerably. Not only did it continue to produce narrative shows in the style of Dirty John, it also launched several ongoing chat podcasts. “The [chat] format is simpler to understand when you bring someone on and you talk with them and you knock out the episode and then you can leverage the audience of the guests in order to bring more ears back to your show, which is a helpful marketing trick.”

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The pressures of launching a narrative podcast

Because most narrative podcasts are limited to a small number of episodes per season, there’s a lot of pressure on the LA Times staff to grow a new show’s audience very quickly so it can be monetized. “We are projecting high numbers of listens in order to make back the investment that we put into higher level production on these shows. And so in order for the numbers to work, we have to have a lot of listens. We have to deliver on advertiser expectations, and luckily we've been able to do so repeatedly thus far. We have a kind of a shocking track record on the narrative podcast, and we hope to keep it up.”

I asked Clint about the process of greenlighting a narrative podcast for production. “We have a group of stakeholders from the newsroom. Generally, nothing's going to come out of the newsroom that the newsroom didn't select as a story they want to tell. So they of course have that  veto power, if you will. Most of the pitches we're getting are from inside the newsroom. There are all kinds of great stories. Sometimes my favorite pitches I received we were not in a position to greenlight because maybe the tape isn't there or maybe we know that there's something else in the marketplace that's too similar. That's going to prevent us from finding the success that we need in order to finance it properly.”

They also sometimes get pitched by outside production studios. “We haven't brought too many of those into our fold … Generally, we're going to probably be a newsroom first organization in terms of what we produce for audio, but I'm definitely open to other types of collaborations.”

How to sell your IP to Hollywood

Dirty John was adapted into a TV series for Bravo, and The LA Times plans to sell more podcast IP in the future. “That's a big part of my role … We've sold the rights to a couple of other podcasts that you'd be familiar with. We are packaging one from last year as well and have high hopes for that and have some great talent attached to it … Really right now we're focused on finding partners that fit the LA Times brand. We certainly don't want to take some really important, nuanced story and turn it into some slasher film or something like that. We want it to be consistent with our LA Times bar for excellence. We want to partner with people where things are actually going to get made. We don't just want our IP sitting in purgatory for years and years in exchange for a small check upfront.”

Of course it isn’t just Hollywood buying up IP. Spotify is also laying down serious money to secure podcast exclusives. I asked Clint if he’d ever consider such a deal. “I think we're certainly open to those sorts of partnerships generally. Historically, we have a perspective that we would like LA Times subscribers to have first crack at anything that the LA Times creates, but it's not necessarily a steadfast rule. If it makes sense and all parties are interested in exclusive content with another platform, we were certainly open to exploring that.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.