Francesco Zaffarano
Mar 4 · 6 min read

Plus: the Cairncross Review on the (sustainable) future of UK journalism; how a Talent Lab taught Quartz the importance of wellbeing in the newsroom.

Illustration by Francesco Zaffarano based on a Pexels.com photography and Today in Focus’ logo

Daily podcast is a risky business. Podcasts are on the rise, for sure, but producing a product every day that can win readers’ attention is not easy at all. In the last few years, the internet has taught publishers that to be successful, it’s not enough to just have a big name behind you.

That’s why we asked Mythili Rao, Lead Producer of The Guardian’s Today in Focus, to share some thoughts on her work at February’s Hacks/Hackers London event.

Why a daily podcast?

“The media industry as a whole doesn’t really know what is going to work to make journalism sustainable,” Mythili Rao said. Earlier this month, more than 2,000 people were laid off from BuzzFeed, Vice, Huffington Post, McClatchy, and Gannet. The worst part of the story is that many of those companies were seen until recently as the ones that had found a way to make digital journalism sustainable.

“But there are some bright spots where things are working. Podcasts are one of the bright spots in journalism now. It’s where people are turning to find their news,” Rao said.

Podcasts have been there for a very long time but they seem to be one of the biggest trends in media right now. According to the Pew Research Centre, podcast listenership in the US has increased by over 66% since 2013. Growing trends have been reported also in the UK by Ofcom.

There are many reasons why this has happened, not least Apple introducing its Podcast app with its iOS 6 software in 2012. Podcasts have also been experiencing a rise in popularity in the news industry. In 2017, The New York Times’ blockbuster podcast The Daily paved the way for daily news podcasts and many publishers have followed since then.

“This is a perfect moment for a daily podcast because there is so much news going on and you have a lot of opportunities to experiment.”

“You can do politics, you can do feature, you can do a lot of different things. But we launched a daily podcast mainly because there was nothing like this in the UK market,” Rao explained.

Recently, The Economist launched its daily news podcast The Intelligence. However, the only other competitors are BBC’s Beyond Today and FT News Briefing: the former is not properly a daily podcast since it’s released on alternate days, while the second one is a 10-minute-long round of the most important news to start the day.

Today in Focus was launched on November 1, 2018. To be fair, it wasn’t the first time the paper experimented with daily podcasts. In March 2006, Jon Dennis launched Newsdesk (then rebranded Guardian Daily), which ran until July 2010 (worth reading this Nieman Lab’s interview with Dennis about what went wrong with that).

The podcast’s format is similar to The Daily’s. Episodes are released every morning before 6 and cover in-depth national and international news while showcasing the reporting of Guardian journalists around the world. Each episode lasts between 20 and 25 minutes, featuring two news-driven stories: one main news story, anchored by the host (17–20 minutes) and a shorter, non-narrated comment (3–5 minutes).

How Today in Focus episodes are structured

How to launch a successful daily podcast?

“In all creative processes you don’t really know what you are doing until you dive into it,” Rao said. There is no unique rule for a successful podcast but she has learnt a lot by producing Today in Focus from scratch.

“First, you need to assemble the right team. You have to find people you trust to get the job done,” explained Rao, who works in a team made mostly of former BBC and long-time Guardian journalists. “Then, you have to pilot a lot.

“Piloting is a scary process. You are making something hypothetical, on imaginary deadlines and for an imaginary audience.” But piloting is fundamental, according to Rao, because “[it] is a lot of experimenting with workflow. You have to figure out how many people does it take to pull out the show each day.”

“You also have to be strategic,” Rao explained. “You have to think about what stories you can make without someone being in the office until 3 in the morning every night — stories you can work on for a couple of days before they air, where some interviews can be done in advance, and other bits can be left for the last minute.”

You can’t just try and see what happens, though: “Before the launch, the marketing team did a lot of research about the kind of people who read The Guardian, the kind of people who listen to podcasts, what their habits are, what time of the day they listen to them and what kind of stories they are interested in,” Rao said.

“These are not rules but things we can be aware of — they give us useful information about what our audience is looking for. And I think those insights have helped the podcast quickly find listeners who wanted this kind of show all along.”

Question what you do — The Guardian’s “stress tests”

Piloting is also the best moment to question what you are doing. “During the piloting process, our team came up with a series of questions to help us figure out how to pick the right story each day. We call this set of questions ‘stress tests’”. Mythili Rao shared with Hacks/Hackers London some of the most important questions her team tries to answer when working on a new episode:

  • Is this story moving forward?
  • Will this story get more people interested in what’s going on in the world?
  • Why does it matter that people know this?
  • Will this story leave people thinking?
  • Is there a character with something big at stake?
  • Have we taken advantage of our medium? Does the audio sound interesting?
  • Have we treated this place/story the way we would if it were close to home?
  • With all the things competing for people’s time, is this story worth it?
  • Have we struck a balance between complexity/nuance and accessibility?

The last two questions are the most important, according to Rao. “We have to ask ourselves if we really believe that people should spend 20 minutes of their morning on our episode. But also if we have struck a balance between complexity and accessibility. You want to make things as simple and clear as possible in only 20 minutes but we don’t want to oversimplify.”

You can watch Mythili Rao’s full talk here.


This is what else you missed at the last Hacks/Hackers London event

At the last Hacks/Hackers London meetup, we were joined by Akshat Rathi, who came to speak about is work within the Cairncross Review, a report that aims to show a possible way to make UK journalism sustainable. Some of the key points of the Cairncross Review deal with platform regulations, support for local journalism and funding for innovation.


Our last guest speaker was Jackie Bischof, news editor at Quartz, who joined us to talk about the Quartz Talent Lab, which has been leading with Kira Bindrim for three years (the current Talent Lab editor is Holly Ojalvo).

The Talent Lab was launched in 2015 by the publisher to help find talented people and help them find their place within the company. The reason is very simple:

“To make great things you need unique people,” Bischof said.

The aim of the Talent Lab is to see people through the course of their life at Quartz, from a professional, psychological and social perspective. “Instead of just assuming people should get on with things, we cultivated a culture of conversation. We want people to know their company cares enough to think about their career in the short or long term.”

Some of the best practices of the Talent Lab can be replicated in every newsroom without a dedicated team like Quartz’s, according to Bischof. Namely, organising small formal or informal group discussions; inviting guest speakers; advocating for pay transparency and career pathing; creating a mentorship program.

“The Talent Lab taught us the value of frank conversation, about the challenges and opportunities that exist in a rapidly changing industry, and how dealing with those changes can only help us be well.”

You can watch Jackie Bischof’s full talk here.


Want to join Hacks/Hackers London next month? The tickets for our March event are available. Check our page on Eventbrite for more info and to find out next month’s guest speakers. You can also watch some of the talks from previous meetups on our YouTube channel and follow us on Twitter and Facebook to stay posted on our future events.

Hacks/Hackers London

Journalism x technology, London style. Hashtag: #HHLdn

Francesco Zaffarano

Written by

Journo, nerd • Social media editor at The Telegraph • Former social and engagement at The Economist, la Repubblica, La Stampa • www.francescozaffarano.com

Hacks/Hackers London

Journalism x technology, London style. Hashtag: #HHLdn

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade