What a California newspaper is learning as it experiments with podcasting

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We asked newsrooms and ad agencies what they are doing today that they weren't doing a year ago. Turns out quite a lot! This RJI series highlights some of the innovations and experiments we discovered and shares what leaders are learning along the way. We call it The What's New? Q&A.

This Q&A has been edited for space and clarity.

A team at the Ventura County Star thought they could enhance their online presence and gain new audiences with two podcasts – one on local history and the other on prep sports.

Turns out they were right.

The Camarillo, Calif., newspaper staff initially set a goal to gain 300 listens a month for the weekly history show "Never 30." "When Kitsch was King at the Wagon Wheel," a segment about a roadside attraction that included an amusement park and skating rink, received 327 listens in the first 24 hours after it was published.

Season one's eight episodes brought in more than 8,000 listens combined since the launch this past summer. Although most of the listeners were local residents, it also attracted listeners from across North America and the United Kingdom. The second season launched last week.

The 15- to 20-minute "Never 30" podcast is targeted to an 18- to- 54-year-old demographic. The two podcasts were the newspaper's first dive into audio storytelling on its website. 

Having experimented with audio projects at previous jobs, Consumer Experience Director Michelle Rogers says she wanted to try audio storytelling to reach new audiences.

Rogers recruited existing staff to help with the podcasts. During season one, "Never 30" host Andrea Howry, community content editor, interviewed local experts such as professors or museum curators on subjects, including the Great Depression, World War II and the 1970 shipwreck of a 12,500-ton cruise ship that was supposed to become a floating restaurant and hotel. However, after crashing during a storm and being pushed up near the beach, the hull filled up with sand and could not be moved, says Howry. It now serves as a permanent jetty. Other episodes feature long-standing businesses and roadside attractions.

Rogers and Howry used a dual approach to finding topics and sources. Rogers sought out possible interview candidates on social media. Howry pored over print issues from the appropriate time period to find excerpts to read.

The experts point Howry in the direction of additional sources.

Brainstorming as a team and asking the audience and co-workers for ideas also proved to be fruitful. 

Anthony Plascencia, multimedia journalist, then edited the weekly podcast and hand-picked music and background sounds.  

The podcast's title makes reference to the tradition of writing 30 at the end of a print story.

"But there are some stories that have no ending," says Howry in the podcast. "You can type 'to be continued' or 'part two to come,' but never 30."

The newspaper also launched a podcast about prep sports called "Prep Period."

This Q&A focuses on "Never 30." I interviewed Howry, Plascencia and Rogers. Digital News Producer Yazmin Cruz also contributed to this Q&A.

What was your hope or expectation for the podcasts?

Rogers: My expectation for both podcasts was that we would reach and gain new audience by entering and sharing our content on a new platform, a space we hadn't previously played in. As we know, people consume content in different ways and on different platforms. It's important for us as a news organization to explore those different platforms and tell stories in the format our audience wants and on the platforms they prefer, in order to grow our reach.

What goes into creating a podcast episode? How long does it take to produce one?

Howry: It totally depends. We have some that are just a single interview. Others require four or five interviews.

I think it takes a little more time than a written story because you do have to make that extra effort to go out in person. You can always do a print interview over the phone, but the audio quality is so important in a podcast.

Before I go into all of that, though, I go to the library to research and find those old newspaper clips. I would say it takes anywhere from one to three days to put together one episode.

Plascencia: I start out by editing the whole interview and script together so the order of the story is all in place. Then I start researching what music is going to play well in the different spots. They're history pieces, so I'm specifically looking for music from that period of time.

When I'm editing, it's not just about putting together a timeline, it's using the timeline to immerse the audience. It's intended to draw them in and make them not want to go anywhere while they're listening

You transitioned from print to audio storytelling. What advice do you have for others for telling a good audio story?

Howry: The interviews are still the same. You have to find the right kind of people and steer the questions so you get an eloquent answer. That part doesn't really change. It's still basic interviewing, but you have to get out of the office and do the research. Interviews outside the office are really critical so you get some of those ambient sounds and you make that face-to-face contact.

What's been the most effective way to promote the podcast?

Rogers: A diverse promotional campaign is vital. You can't just think sharing links on Facebook will drive traffic or just sharing audio cards on Twitter will get you the audience numbers you want. It needs to be a combination of promotional efforts, and you must tailor the presentation or message to the particular platform you're using. What you post on Facebook must be different from what you build and share on Instagram Stories.

Advertising is also important, but, in this case, we chose digital only, as we knew that's where our potential audience was – online.

So, my message is: When it comes to promoting a new endeavor, you need to think multi-platform and tailor your message or call to action to a particular platform and the audience that may be on that platform. It's not one size fits all.

Cruz: On Instagram, the reach of each audiogram was at least 3,000. The one that did the best was about the shipwreck. It received 245 likes, and 14 comments, and 13 people bookmarked the post. Its reach was 5,348, which was really close to the reach of the Wagon Wheel video at 5,866. That one got 336 likes, 18 comments and 28 bookmarks.

For all our social platforms, I found that video and audiograms did better than still photos.

For Twitter, the gifs, videos and audiograms I made did better than tweets with just a link. The tweets received more than one retweet, several likes and more than 500 views each.

On Facebook, posts with just a link reached at least 5,000. Videos did far better on this platform. The Wagon Wheel video we shared on Instagram reached 87,965. It had 40,945 views; 3,530 reactions, comments and shares on Facebook. Our "Ghost Stories" audiogram got 10,000 views, and that's around the number of views others received unless they were a fully produced video such as the Wagon Wheel.

What has been the biggest challenge when it came launching the podcast or continuing to produce these segments?

Howry: One of the challenges was when we decided to do the print version of "Ghost Stories." That's when I realized that putting out a podcast and writing a story are two different animals. You can't just run the transcript, and you can't turn it into a Q&A. A transcript might work if there is only one person being interviewed in the podcast or if all the interviewees are in the room at the same time. But with "Ghost Stories," I interviewed two people in two different environments, and turning that into a Q&A just didn't work.

In most cases, with a story, you're writing the framework, and you use the quotes to enhance and support the points you're trying to make. With a podcast, it's exactly the opposite. The host is serving as the bridge between the points the interviewee is trying to make. So, I simply started over, wrote an editor's note explaining that this was taken from a podcast. I also explained what the podcast is and how to access it. Then I set to writing a story from scratch. Since it was about "Ghost Stories," I wrote a fresh lead, then structured the story by location and used pared-down quotes.

Plascencia: For me, the obstacles came before we even launched the podcasts. Things like knowing how we were going to get them on the different platforms. I get all of my podcasts from the Apple podcast app. But before we started, I had no idea how new podcasts get into the platform, nor did I know how many podcast platforms there are. So, the first thing I wanted to do was research the different platforms as well as the audience reach of each. This was done to determine what our potential audience would be and what, if anything, it would cost to be on those platforms.

I also wanted to make sure we wouldn't have any issues with advertising within the podcasts, which can be an issue with some video platforms. We settled on the iTunes library, Google Play Store and Stitcher. Most of the other platforms cull their content from Google Play and iTunes. Stitcher has its own sizeable audience, so this would give us the largest reach without having to submit to every directory out there.

Our show is hosted on SoundCloud, which provides an RSS that goes out to each of these.

Also, I found that it takes a week or so to get approved on each of these platforms before you get added to the directory. We created a teaser episode in SoundCloud to populate our RSS before submitting the podcast to those directories. This way we would be ready to roll when we launched our first full episode.

And then there was the music side of things. Where were we going to get music? Did our company have a library that we could use? Were we legally covered to use that library? How much would we be allowed to use? Just finding out the legal ramifications for doing that – we had to know what we were getting ourselves into.

Throughout this process what surprised you the most or what did you learn that was unexpected?

Plascencia: I like to edit with headphones on. However, sometimes headphones may not accurately portray what the podcast mix will sound like for someone who is listening in a vehicle or through a speaker. I've found that what sounds great on headphones can sometimes be very difficult to listen to without them.

What equipment is required and do you have any recommendations for other newsrooms?

Plascencia: We were able to repurpose some of what we already had in house. We had microphones and stuff like that that we were using for video. We have a sound mixer to plug the microphone into. There are a lot of different things out there that people could use.

I think one of our co-workers from the preps sports podcast uses a USB hand-held mic that he bought on Amazon for about $40.

Has podcasting been worth it? If so, how so?

Rogers: Serving up stories on new platforms has been a worthwhile venture in many respects. Not only have we been able to reach new audiences, but our host, Andrea Howry, a journalist and editor, and technical producer, Anthony Plascencia, have grown their skill sets. Andrea has learned to tell stories in a different way that appeals to another audience segment, and Anthony has learned to produce podcasts, telling stories through audio, even though his expertise is in visual storytelling. These skill sets should serve them and the Ventura County Star well as our industry continues to evolve in the digital age.

Also, the feedback we've received from our audience has made it worthwhile. We share the episodes in nostalgia groups on Facebook. We are specifically targeting people interested in local history, and they love it. Their comments not only give us incentive to continue researching and telling stories from local history, but their memories shared in the comments section enhance and complement what we have produced. Their feedback, and the feedback we received through several listening parties across Ventura County, has also helped shaped the direction we are going in season two in the stories we are choosing to pursue.

Ready to launch a podcast in your newsroom? Anthony Plascencia, VC Star multimedia journalist, recommends four resources to help you get started. 

Jennifer Nelson is the senior information specialist at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. Previously, she was the news editor of the Osceola (Iowa) Sentinel-Tribune.

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