What Is the New York Times Audio App For?
Details about what the new service is — or why they are creating it in the first place — are murky. Perhaps that’s the point.
The New York Times is home to one of the most successful podcasts in the world, The Daily, which clocked 1.2 billion downloads in 2020. And audio content is a big part of the current purview of Sam Dolnick, an assistant managing editor who oversees multimedia efforts including audio, film, TV, and newsletters. The Times is also now home to some of the most storied podcast creators, Serial Productions, which The Times acquired last year—a deal also involving a “strategic partnership” with longrunning public radio program This American Life, where the Serial podcast was initially produced as a spinoff. Last year, The Times also purchased an app called Audm, which offers audio versions of magazine articles from publishers including The Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and others, for an $8.99 monthly subscription.
What does all that add up to? The Times has never been quite sure, and that seems to be the primary goal of a New York Times Audio app for which it is seeking beta testers: to figure it all out. “Our vision for the app is that it will guide you to the audio journalism and storytelling that matters today, so people can search less and listen more,” a New York Times spokesperson told Off the Record.
That vision leaves a lot of blank canvas. Here are some of our top questions about how they’ll go about filling all that space.
Is New York Times Audio another standalone subscription product?
Today in The New York Times 360° content universe, you can buy separate subscriptions to the Cooking app, Crosswords, and most recently product recommendation service The Wirecutter — and, oh, the news, too, now with a slate of subscriber-only newsletters. In its transformation into a subscription-based company, The Times likes to boast of its total subscribers across all these products (most recent count reported in its financial results: 7,133,000).
So, when Bloomberg News first scooped the New York Times Audio app beta test last week, many minds assumed that it would be a forthcoming standalone subscription product. There are several questions on its beta invite sign-up form asking about what subscriptions you pay for as well as whether you agree or disagree with the statement, “If one of my favorite podcasts started charging a fee for access, I would stop listening.”
When it launches, though, the New York Times Audio app will be free to use, at least while it’s in beta.
If New York Times Audio eventually does turn into a subscription product, what will it sell?
The pioneers in the paid audio space have not had an easy time of it. The podcast startup Luminary Media, backed with $100 million, launched a service that charges $35 a year and has struggled to attract subscribers even with its big-name talents like Trevor Noah and Lena Dunham. And Spotify, which has 165 million subscribers to its streaming service, has seen its stock stumble this year following a big podcasting bet—like, $100-million-for-Joe-Rogan-
So it’s not surprising that the one sure thing The Times is saying about its audio app is that it won’t mean that its hit podcasts like The Daily (more than 2 million downloads per week) will be going behind a paywall or disappearing from any platforms like Spotify, Apple, or Stitcher. Their podcast offerings have expanded with a series produced by Serial, Nice White Parents, and a talent lineup including Lulu Garcia-Navarro, who was recently poached from NPR, Ezra Klein, Jane Coaston, and Kara Swisher.
“We’re not taking any of our shows off of other platforms,” a spokesperson told us. “Those are essential places to reach large audiences, and we intend to remain a large publisher in this space.”
So, that leaves Audm. But, as yet, the app does not appear to have a giant subscription base. At the time of its acquisition, The Times reported Audm had 20,000 paying subscribers, compared to more than a combined 1 million at the time for the Cooking and Crosswords apps.
Is New York Times Audio another way to sell high-priced, full-freight subscriptions?
As the array of digital subscription offerings has expanded at The Times, so has the range of prices at which it sells them. The “Basic Digital Access Subscription,” which covers its website and news app, has a current list price of $221 per year. (Discounts are plentiful, especially overseas, such as in the UK, where the going rate is £26 per year or about $36.) Audm’s annual subscription plan is $60, while Cooking, Crosswords (now rebranded as Games), and The Wirecutter charge significantly less at $40 per year.
But The Times also has subscriptions that are much, much more expensive. At the very top is a package, referred to on its sales site as “the full Times experience,” that includes seven-days-a-week home delivery of the print edition, digital access to news, as well as all of the standalone subscription services. The current quote (in Brooklyn at least) is $1,040 per year. The weekend delivery plan costs half that at $520, which is not far from the $401 per year it would cost to subscribe to all five of its standalone digital subscriptions. So it raises the question of what is the bigger strategic goal of adding another cheaper subscription like, one supposes, a New York Times Audio app? Is it building out a portfolio of separate businesses or building a bundle that convinces more people to go all-in rather than buy their Times experience a la carte?
Of course, even if The Times has clear answers in their collective heads to these questions, there’s value in running experiments so that whatever strategy they do adopt is based on collected data rather than guesswork. (To some extent, that was what played a role in previous doomed subscription initiatives at The Times, including its TimeSelect paywall, a NYT Opinion app, and a youth-targeted NYT Now app that was shelved in 2016.)
And The Times has other audio issues to deal with. Recently, Annie Brown and Theo Balcomb departed The Daily’s notoriously grueling work environment. Last year, The Times was forced to retract major portions of its bigger audio undertakings, the 2018 audio documentary series Caliphate, after its central source was revealed as a hoaxer. In February, one of the hosts and producers of that series, Andy Mills, resigned after allegations of misconduct resurfaced. And in August, Kathy Tu, who left The Times for Wondery Media, appeared to decry the promotion of Paula Szuchman to director of audio.
For now, The Times doesn’t appear to be ready to make comments that look past the beta phase of New York Times Audio. In 2020, the company’s podcast ad revenue grew to $36 million. “We’re focused first and foremost on building something that people love and demonstrate a habit with,” The Times spokesperson said. “In the meantime, audio remains a very attractive advertising business for us.”