As the likable host of The New York Times’ wildly popular podcast The Daily, Michael Barbaro has two accomplishments to his credit.
First, he has contributed mightily to the parent New York Times Co.’s goal of making its flagship newspaper relevant. In a media ecosystem that has become increasingly fractured by the likes of Vice, Vox, BuzzFeed and other internet properties – not to forget Facebook, Apple and Google – The Grey Lady continues to showcase the value of an enduring brand name.
And, not insignificantly, by the way, Barbaro has also become an improbable cult hero to the millions of people who tune in on a regular basis.
To put this all into perspective, The Times Co. has received its fair share of criticism for failing, earlier in this century, to figure out how to maximize its world-class name. Such hopeful innovations as The Times Select, a subscription model, fizzled and was eventually terminated unsatisfactorily.
But The Daily – and, to a degree, the admired television program, The Weekly – has shown that the media goliath understands how to innovate.
A Must-Listen Destination
The Daily was an instant commercial hit. Launched in January 2017, its listener ranks swelled to 3.8 million by that August. (I emailed the Times to inquire about a current user figure, but didn’t hear back in time to include the data here).
Further, The Daily has attained that elusive goal - creating a buzz in the cluttered genre of podcasts. Media people often quote from it and the vehicle has become a must-listen destination for serious news junkies and not only because it is free for Times subscribers.
The Daily's review of China's recent dispute with the NBA was a primer in what scholars like to call explanatory journalism. Barbaro and his guest, fellow Timesman Jim Yardley, did a first-rate job of explaining the nuances of China's discontent and the hapless/impossible position of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who found himself torn between the lure of China's gargantuan financial potential and his free-speech instincts. Yardley also contributed a nifty bit of historical perspective about China and the sport of basketball. This segment was a model for anyone interested in doing podcasts.
The format for The Daily is simple and effective. It focuses on one major issue of the day – ranging from President Trump’s immigration policy to the demonstrations roiling Hong Kong to the #metoo movement to the Times’ brilliant series on slavery. Barbaro invites a reporter (sometimes two) to discuss how (s)he covered the story. Each installment tends to last roughly 25 minutes.
The Savvy Point Guard
At the center of the hubbub is Barbaro, a Times reporter-turned-host. He is the ideal person for the job. Like a savvy point guard on a championship basketball team, Barbaro sees his primary responsibility as making sure that his gifted teammates get their share of shots.
Barbaro doesn’t seem to worry about hogging the spotlight and unlike, say, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews – who appears to think he is getting paid by the word – does not talk over his guests. He is comfortable in his role.
His folksy interviewing style and natural empathy may remind some of CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who has made a living out of providing the kind of emotional depth that CNN viewers identify with.
The Daily’s devoted flock could start a drinking game based on how many times per show Barbaro will mutter or murmur or express surprise in a quick-hitting one-syllable utterance (or begin a sentence with the word “So,” which is part of his informal, breezy style). Barbaro’s winning quirks have become a big part of his popularity.
A Single Caveat
It’s clear that The Times Co.values The Daily as a business property. Still, I could live without having Daily staffers and notable Times journalists shill during broadcasts for the home team by imploring listeners to become Times subscribers. The line between class and crass blurs and I cringe every time I hear an employee sound the bugle call for The Times on The Daily.
I also hope that eventually we can see a Daily-lite podcast, based on lighter fare than The Daily serves up. The Times has the mojo on its side – a successful format, a proven track record, a loyal audience and a powerful staff.
The Times, once unable to master the new media, has conquered the 21st century.