If you want to understand how the news business is changing, listen to the New York Times. I’ve been doing just that — and what I’ve heard is worth exploring.
I’m sitting with a gathering of Times friends, fans, and followers at Irene’s Restaurant a few block from the main thoroughfare of South By Southwest, the gathering of digital, film, and music tastemakers that convenes each March in Austin, Texas.
On stage, Times Assistant Managing Editor Sam Dolnick is having a conversation with two Times reporters, Mike Isaac and Nellie Bowles, for the session “Signal Jamming: Covering The Tech Giants In An Age of Unrest.”
Last year, the Times’ presence at SXSW was high-tech, with virtual reality as a calling card.
But in the time in between, something has changed.
In what was probably an experiment, Dolnick, who oversees The Times’ digital operations was part of the team that created a podcast. Called "The Daily," it was dramatically not the authoritarian, voice-of-god narration that generations of Times readers probably expected to hear.
Instead, the voice was of Times reporter Michael Barbaro working with executive producer Lisa Tobin. Barbaro is quizzical, thoughtful, often halting in his conversations as he searches for threads to connect ideas.
The new voice of the Times is now reaching a pool that’s grown dramatically, to 4.5 million podcast listeners each month.
Barbaro is the vocal glue, bringing together Times reporters for conversations. Not interviews, not “us and them” jousts, but instead smart, funny, engaging, serious, revealing conversations among colleagues. The podcast takes listeners on aural journeys, but is able to remain casual and authentic in a way that a new generation of listeners who grew up on YouTube and blogs have come to expect. Authority and authenticity don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
So is "The Daily" a fluke, or is something really changing at the Times? I went to the presentation to find out.
The three panelists amble on stage, all wearing New York City black in the hot Texas sun. And soon it’s clear Barbaro is not alone. The Times now speaks in a new voice, both about the news it covers and way it illustrates stories.
Bowles talks with disarming casualness about getting inside the world of blockchain and crypto, going to live with the new Crypto kids in Puertopia, a hopeful crypto-utopia under construction in Puerto Rico.
Her descriptions of getting inside the world of “blockchain bros” have a charm that's refreshing given an earlier era where reporters seemed to imagine they were smarter than their readers.
Issac’s reporting on Big Tech and power is similarly raw and funny.
At Dolnick’s urging, both Bowles and Issac acknowledge there are big pieces of the future of tech that remain a mystery —with twists and turns ahead that will provide lots of good stories to write.
Looking for more clues about the Times' direction, I head over to the Austin Convention Center, where Barbaro is slated to have a conversation with Rukmini Callimachi, the Times reporter who has been covering Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism for the past four years.
I’m a few minutes late, and the energy in the room is strangely somber, hushed in a surprising way.
Within a few minutes I understand why. The story that Callimachi is telling is intimate and absolutely chilling: what she’s seen inside ISIS, including the abuse of women as sexual slaves; the secret chat rooms she’s been able to enter; the conversations she’s witnessed.
Barbaro too is taken aback, shocked into uncharacteristic silence by the sheer audacity of Callimachi’s reporting. She’s risked her life to report the stories she now shares. There’s not a bit of theatrics in her telling of the story — it’s just flat-out brave.
She shares that Al-Qaeda and ISIS don’t like each other, and are in fact rivals. The room stirs, since this seems like an insider’s understanding not widely known.
Callimachi and Barbaro seem to like and trust each other.
Callimachi explains that audio has given her a new way to tell stories beyond print.
She and Barbaro announce a new podcast series, called “Caliphate,” which will follow Callimachi “as she reports on the Islamic State and the fall of Mosul," according to the series introduction.
Dolnick calls “Caliphate" “the most ambitious project yet” in a tweet later that day.
I listen to a clip from the show, and it is an important piece of journalism. Audio provides a dimension that this complex and widely misunderstood story needs. Callimachi’s voice and intimate access is hauntingly relevant.
Journalism is at a crossroads, with challenges that include changing economics, a millennial audience that gets most of its content from mobile screens, and a hunger for authenticity and emotional nuance that has historically been missing in the more formal voice of the news.
It’s been an important, foundational year at the Times. Podcasting has provided a new platform and a new voice for storytelling, and the company has embraced a new, often unvarnished voice that is in turns both modern and rooted in the deep past of the institution.
Next, Dolnick is planning to take the new Times voice to television. For longtime believers in the power and importance of video storytelling, a new Times take on video storytelling may be coming at just the right time.