Subverting The Inverted Pyramid, And Other Tips For Making Audio At A Newspaper

photo of Martine Powers in the studio

Intro from Jay Allison: Martine Powers had been working as a newspaper reporter (including three years with the Boston Globe) when she showed up at the Transom Story Workshop in the fall of 2015. She said the nuance and power of her interviewees' voices were lost when their words were put in print. She wanted to learn how to tell stories with sound.

Fast forward four years, and Martine is now the host of "Post Reports," the Washington Post's new(ish) daily podcast--a dream come true for a print-reporter-turned-radio-producer like Martine. She says, "There’s nothing more exciting than sharing the powerful, groundbreaking work of daily newspaper journalism in a podcast-friendly way."

In her Transom feature, Martine shares lessons she's learned, along with audio examples and lots of encouragement for other newspapers to try their hands at using audio.

Newspapers And Podcasts

Here’s a thing you won’t hear a lot of people say: Newspapers have been killing it at the podcast game for a long, long time.

Of course, there has been a recent rise in the popularity of podcasts produced by newspapers. They range from daily news podcasts likeThe Daily, and the one I began hosting a few months ago, Post Reports, to limited-run series like The Los Angeles Times’ “Dirty John,” or The Boston Globe’s “Gladiator” about the Aaron Hernandez murders.

But the truth is that some of the best audio storytelling that’s existed in the past decade has been built on the foundation of exceptional newspaper journalism.

Take Radiolab’s 2013 episode “23 Weeks 6 Days,” about big questions of life and death and premature births . . . an episode that was adapted from an incredible series published by the Tampa Bay Times. A vast number of excellent This American Life stories are based on investigative reporting that were produced after, or in collaboration with, print stories from publications like The New York Times (“My Damn Mind”), Boston Magazine (“Dead Men Tell No Tales”), and The Village Voice (“Right to Remain Silent”). And, while listening to my favorite podcasts, like Reply All and The Nod, I often hear my Washington Post colleagues telling the story of their own reporting.

And that’s all great. Collaboration between media outlets is a good thing! The problem is, until a few years ago, newspapers seeking to dive into the world of audio storytelling didn’t quite know how to best tell those stories for themselves . . . how to turn an exhaustive and richly-reported print story into a stunning and addictive podcast.

But finally, that’s changing — and people at newspapers are learning how to tell their own audio stories from the inside.

(Of course, the top editors here would want me to insist that we’re part of a “digital media company,” not a newspaper. Which, yes, we have tons of extremely talented video journalists and web developers and social media storytellers. But come on . . . our logo is written in old-timey font! We’re still a newspaper!)

Here at the Washington Post, we’re thinking about how audio can serve as a crucial part of newspaper storytelling. The executive producer of Post Reports (aka my boss) Madhulika Sikka has spent a lot of time successfully educating editors and reporters to understand that we’re not just creating an audio adaptation of a print story — we are using their reporting to make an audio story that stands on its own strengths . . . and sometimes, departs from the scope or structure of the print version.

For me, that’s an exciting prospect. I’ve worked almost exclusively at newspapers since college, and I also have a missionary zeal for the power of audio. Because I’ve spent many years as a “print” reporter (and throughout this piece, I use the term “print” to mean “text-focused”) there’s nothing more exciting than sharing the powerful, groundbreaking work of a daily newspaper journalism in a podcast-friendly way.

Along the way, here are some of the strategies we’ve found to be successful in that mission:

1. Subvert the inverted pyramid.

If you’ve taken a journalism class, you’ve probably heard of the “inverted pyramid.” It’s a fundamental part of standard newspaper writing — you detail the most important, urgent and recent elements of your story first, then include context, background, and other relevant details in order of descending importance or “newsiness.” The goal is that, even if a reader only skims the first couple hundred words of the story, they’re able to glean the big takeaways of the reporting.

But in podcasting, the inverted pyramid doesn’t always work. Often, people listening to podcasts aren’t looking for the “give me a quick update” version of the story. (That’s what 280-character tweets and breaking news mobile alerts are for!) Instead, podcast listeners are trying to understand the answer to the question, “How did we get here?”

Many times, that means telling a story chronologically. You can give a brief nod to the news in the intro for example, the news that federal prosecutors indicted dozens of rich people in a college admissions cheating scandal — before going back to explain all the twists and turns that led up to the current moment.

Or, particularly in the case of investigative reporting, it means starting with a question — the central question that drove the original investigation — and revealing the conclusions and takeaways later in the story. When we produced a story about the lack of public accountability in the U.S. organ transplant system, we didn’t start with the shocking revelations that the reporter had unearthed. We started with the story of a hopeful young woman who sought to be America’s first uterine transplant recipient. (Her surgery was ultimately botched, hence the investigation.)

This, in newspaper parlance, would be considered “burying the lede.” But in podcasts, it works.

This was the approach that Post Reports took recently, when recounting the story of Michael Cohen’s high-drama testimony on Capitol Hill. The print version of the story recapping the news began with the newsiest news — the major takeaways from Cohen’s testimony. But in the audio version, we let the day unfold in chronological order . . . starting with the moment that our producer Reena Flores met up with reporter Karoun Demirjian as she arrived by bike to the U.S. Capitol. And, in offering a setup to the day’s events, Karoun gives a sense of the context and background that we need in order to understand the significance of what we’re about to hear — and her description also mirrors the anticipation and buzz that was, in itself, a part of the day’s events.

Listen to “Karoun Demijirian”

The trick is to not be afraid to mess with the structure of the newspaper story.

This is even more true for investigative stories, where the reporting process often has a built-in sense of mystery and drama. First, a reporter gets a tip. One question leads to another, and another. Sources agree to talk, information is confirmed. Finally, the whole scope of corruption or wrongdoing is peeled back in plain view in an exciting “aha” moment. It makes for great audio. (Reply All, for the record, is REALLY good at this . . . many of their best stories are rigorously-reported pieces of investigative journalism disguised as entertaining capers.)

Sometimes it takes some coaching to get reporters to essentially tell their story backwards, starting with the context, rather than the news. But often, we hear reporters say that they really appreciate having the chance to experiment with a different approach to telling their story.

2. Use tape — even “bad” or boring tape — to shed light on the realities of being a reporter.

Much of the process of being a newspaper reporter is not very glamorous. It can be awkward, and confusing. Sometimes, it’s even boring. You cover week after week of humdrum school board meetings, or sift through dry financial reports, or read reams of largely-bureaucratic FOIA’ed documents. That’s how you develop a body of knowledge about your beat in order to be able to quickly suss out the big scoops. But that process is often difficult to translate to audio in a way that can feel meaningful for the listener.

What I love about the best journalism movies is the ways they incorporate those realities of print reporting, and make it feel urgent. In All the President’s Men, there’s that captivating extended birds-eye shot where Woodward and Bernstein are poring over borrowed book cards in the Library of Congress, encapsulating just how mind-numbing and time-intensive their reporting process is. Or in Spotlight, the reporters are seen studying books at the train station and entering line after line of data into a spreadsheet. The task is boring. But the way a scene plays out on the screen can be riveting.

We’ve found that there are ways to do the same thing in audio — even if you’re working with imperfect tape. Oftentimes, what we have to use for tape was recorded by print reporters on their phones for their own note-taking purposes. We work with reporters to help coach them on the best ways to capture sound in a way that doesn’t distract from their reporting for their written piece. Still, what we sometimes end up with is a little scratchy. Sometimes, we’re using tape from dry recordings of court proceedings or congressional hearings. But, we can make it work.

In a recent presentation to The Post staff a few weeks, my colleague Matt Collette described it this way: “The nature of our show in particular is kind of forgiving, in terms of tape. We’ve got this quality of deconstructing our stories, like, ‘We are going to take you behind the scenes on how things work.’ And sometimes that’s messy, sometimes that’s windy or noisy, sometimes that’s just to set a scene. So it doesn’t have to be perfect tape to be illustrative.”

That was true in this story we did with immigration reporter Maria Sacchetti, where she took an otherwise unremarkable piece of tape of a judge at a court hearing, and explained why it was highly dramatic and noteworthy.

Listen to “Maria Sacchetti”

Another example: In January, we did a great story with political reporter Jenna Johnson, about her interview with former congressman Beto O’Rourke as he mulls whether he’s going to run for president. Jenna was interviewing O’Rourke while he was taking a walk across the US-Mexico border, and there were a lot of impediments — the rustling, the wind, and the awkwardness of trying to conduct an interview while you’re on the move and frequently being interrupted by passersby. But, by using particular pieces of tape to set up the scene, and then weaving that tape in and out of the narration that Jenna recorded in our own studio recounting the interview, we came up with a story that both told the story of O’Rourke’s indecision, but also gave a bit of a glimpse into what it’s like to be a political reporter, tagging along with would-be candidates in a frenetic environment.

Listen to “Jenna Johnson”

For what it’s worth, Serial’s Sarah Koenig is the master of this — finding ways to use otherwise sub-par tape, like grainy court recordings or bad phone tape — and making it sing. The way that she incorporates tape is not only important in driving her narrative, but also wonderfully illuminates her process as a reporter. (And it’s worth pointing out that Sarah developed her reporting chops at The East Hampton Star, the Concord Monitor, and The Baltimore Sun — and to me, you can hear all of that reflected in the nuance with which she tells her stories!)

3. Get by with as little scripting as possible.

No matter who you are, reading a script and making it “sound natural” is extremely tough. And newspaper reporters are no exception. Even when they know the details of their own reporting inside out, and are brimming with enthusiasm to share their story, it’s remarkable how quickly they can become nervous and stiff if they’re reading a script, regardless of whether it’s written by a producer or by themselves. Sometimes, they sound stilted and robotic. In other instances, they think they’re supposed to place exaggerated emphasis on syllables in the same way that old-timey broadcasters did.

Either way, it often sounds inauthentic and forced — and even the most casual podcast listener can pick up on inauthenticity from a mile away.

We’ve found that we have the most success when we get people to talk about their stories naturally, in the way they would if you ran into them in the hallway or at a bar and asked, “What are you working on?” Sometimes, that approach introduces challenges and complexities. Oftentimes, it means that there’s way more editing involved. And it necessitates after-the-fact fact-checking, because it’s easy to slightly misstate a fact when you’re speaking off-the-cuff . . . and in that case, reporters have to return to re-record that sentence or answer, with a modification to reflect the facts.

So, yes, it’s more complicated when you’re treating a reporter like an interviewee, rather than writing a script for them to read from. But ultimately, if it gets a newspaper reporter to sound like a real person, it’s worth it.

4. Always ask, “Why did you want to write this story?”

This question is often how I start or end an interview with a reporter talking about their story. The answer can give a sense of the thinking behind the conceptualization of the story, and offers the reporter an opportunity to explain how their specific story advances, proves, undercuts, or complicates an existing narrative.

And sometimes it leads to a surprising answer — like, take this example from tech reporter Peter Holley, who started investigating the safety failures and regulatory oversights of the e-scooter industry. Here’s his response to my asking, “Why did you want to write this story?”

Peter: It’s a little unusual because I didn’t realize they were a story until I began using them. So I kind of became obsessed with them just as a customer.

Martine: So you actually ride them?

Peter: I ride them every day. I’m constantly, I almost have like an unnatural obsession with finding them. It’s like a nervous tic almost . . .

For him, it’s way faster than waiting for the subway, and way cheaper than an Uber.

Peter: And then I got an email a couple months into riding them, maybe two months into riding them. . .

Martine: Who sent you this email?

Peter: Skip, one of the major companies based out of San Francisco, they sent me the e-mail.

And it was one of those form emails you usually ignore, about the user agreement and terms of service.

Peter: Well, actually what it told me was that they were changing their terms of service. They had terms of service that allowed you to file a lawsuit but then suddenly they decided to change them. So I read the small print, and I was like, that’s unusual . . . like, why would you change terms of service several months into the product being on the street? That got me curious and then I began to wonder well maybe it’s because of injuries.

Of course, this backstory — that Peter himself is actually an obsessive e-scooter rider — would never have made it into the print version of the story. But it really works in audio, because a) it helps set up the mystery that launched his investigation, and b) it makes you realize why he cares so much.

5. “Making audio” at a newspaper doesn’t have to mean “starting a podcast.”

Right now, I’m pretty lucky to be able to work on a daily podcast under blessedly ideal circumstances. I’m part of a team of people who work on this one podcast, and who are absolutely stellar at audio storytelling: Madhulika and Matt, along with talented producers Alexis Diao, Reena Flores, Linah Mohammad, Ted Muldoon, Maggie Penman, and Jordan-Marie Smith.

But before we created this team, before we launched this podcast, and before I was even hired to The Post’s audio department . . . I was still able to make audio at a newspaper, on my own.

That’s what I did in 2017, when I made an audio version of my print story about a defect in a subway railcar that had endangered the life of a blind man who had accidentally fallen between two subway cars.

While interviewing this rider for my print story, I also recorded him on a mic — and was able to craft an audio narrative that was immersive, non-narrated, and completely different from the print story. Instead of making a podcast feed just for one story, we turned it into an extended audiogram with a simple, looping animation (produced by fellow Transom alum Kolin Pope). The audiogram was posted as a video on The Post’s Facebook account — where it garnered more than 80,000 views in just a few days. I still get emails about this one piece of audio.

And that’s one of the advantages of making audio at a newspaper. You’re not starting from scratch. You don’t necessarily have to create an entirely new website, or cultivate an entirely new audience to engage with your stories. There is already a digital infrastructure that exists to support your audio endeavors: your news outlet’s website and social media presence.

So, use those platforms. And in some cases, consider using those platforms instead of a podcast app.

Not every newspaper has the budget, staff, studio, and equipment to make a once-per-week highly reported and produced podcast. And making a good podcast takes way more labor and time than many people realize. It’s important to be realistic about resources.

So, if your resources are limited, it’s vital that you find ways to make audio that are feasible and sustainable.

Other news outlets have also been successful in creating innovative audio projects that don’t involve “starting a podcast.” Last year, I loved The New York Times Magazine’s travel issue, told entirely in audio. Vox creates wonderful short 4- to 6-minute segments in their “Earworm” series, unpacking the nuances and trends in popular music, and though they’re presented as animated videos, they serve as wonderful short audio features. I subscribe to a couple of audio-only newsletters (hello, The Secret Soundscape Club!) and I’m convinced that this is also an exciting and unconventional way to disseminate audio.

The point is, there is plenty of room to use audio in surprising ways. And that willingness to experiment is especially important for newspapers. At a time when we see accusations of “fake news” regularly lobbed at hardworking and mission-driven news reporters . . . and at a time when many newspapers around the country are still struggling to stay afloat . . . audio is a vital tool for instilling loyalty and trust among people who want to understand the world better.

Martine Powers

Martine Powers

Martine Powers is the host of Post Reports, the flagship daily news podcast at the Washington Post. She's spent most of her career as a print reporter — at the Post, the Boston Globe, and Politico — and she started clambering her way into the world of audio journalism in the fall of 2015, when she attended the Transom Story Workshop. She's produced freelance audio stories, she launched and edited a podcast about black womanhood called The Get, and she wrote and hosted a narrative miniseries on midterm elections, How To Flip The House

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