Journalism seems to have its mojo back again – at least nationally – with The New York Times and The Washington Post alternating blockbuster exposés in recent weeks about a dastardly dysfunctional presidency, a la Watergate.

Not that long ago, The Washington Post had been tossed on a scrap heap, scooped up by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for $250 million. For a tech-world comparison, Bezos could have bought 132 Washington Posts for the same price as the Snapchat IPO earlier this year.

With innovative and exceedingly rich entrepreneurs, such as Bezos and Civil Beat’s Pierre Omidyar, investing instead in journalism, our democratic discourse has been both rising again and dramatically shapeshifting into dynamic multimedia forms.

Podcasts, for example, appear to have found their niche in the media ecosystem. The recent release of the genre’s blockbuster hit “S-town” complements a surge of renewed interest in the medium from throughout the industry, including at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, ProPublica and Civil Beat. When making projections for Harvard College’s NiemanLab, National Public Radio’s Asma Khalid predicted that 2017 will be the “year of the newsy podcast.” So this finally could be its moment.

Jessica Terrell, right, and April Estrellon work on the Civil Beat’s “Offshore” podcast.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

About a decade ago, around the release of the first iPhone, I was in one of the newsrooms across the nation that all seemed to simultaneously discover the broad communication powers of various emerging technologies. Through multimedia websites and the advent of social media, journalists suddenly could leap news boundaries, in which radio reporters could make video; television reporters could write; and newspaper writers could make radio.

The Guardian’s Ben Hammersley noted as early as 2004 how audio journalism could disconnect from car radios, through trendy little sound-making devices called iPods, and free itself from broadcast conventions. But no one knew what to call this burgeoning genre. Hammersley suggested as possibilities “audioblogging,” “guerillamedia” and “podcasting,” with the latter mashing together Apple branding with broadcasting.

In this seminal piece, Hammersley interviewed podcasting pioneer Christopher Lydon, who had worked for both The New York Times and National Public Radio. Lydon gushed about the possibilities of podcasts. He noted that the professional production and distribution tools were inexpensive, and he no longer had publishers, editors or corporate interests to appease. He only had to appeal directly to an audience.

These were all wonderful theoretical propositions. Back in reality, though, at least in my newsroom (and from corroborating reports I’ve heard from many other journalists working during this era), the tools were available but not the support systems or realistic expectations.

Editors gave me a box of audio and video gear, with complex software and little training, plus a mandate: Go ahead and keep doing that daily print story we want, but now during your (nonexistent) downtime, also monitor the entire World Wide Web, develop your social media channels, take photographs, make videos and create podcasts.

I did what I could; as did others. Without significant institutional stanchions, established best practices, quality models to emulate, aesthetic benchmarks or coherent strategies, though, most of it was like an amateur hour. Interest waned, from both producers and audiences.

But the idea was too promising, with too much potential, to go away. The quality of the content just had to improve.

While many podcasters used to just rant into a microphone (and some still do), the ground-breaking moments in this medium were when professionals or highly skilled amateurs started taking podcasting fidelity seriously.

“This American Life” gave birth to “Serial,” and “All Things Considered” spawned such shows as “RadioLab,” meaning podcasters also now have well-established formulas and models to emulate, leading to more diverse and better content.

podcast photo

Patrick Breitenbach/Flickr

Civil Beat’s OffShore podcast, for example, demonstrates how even a relatively small nonprofit news organization can create riveting and nuanced long-form audio journalism, if the right resources are committed to it. Civil Beat collaborated with national public radio distributer PRX on the project. The local journalists, including reporter Jessica Terrell, wrote and produced the show while PRX pitched in on sales and marketing.

The first season focused on race and power dynamics in Hawaii, through the connections found between two killings on Oahu, which happened decades apart. The second season, which just wrapped up, looks deeper at the swirling controversies surrounding “The Sacred Mountain,” Mauna Kea, on the Big Island.

These are slick and professional journalistic pieces, crafted with a writer’s voice and a radio technician’s proficiency. They comfortably fit on Civil Beat as well as on Hawaii Public Radio, which rebroadcast that first season in March and April.

Last year, HPR also collaborated with Civil Beat on “Hawaii’s New Ice Age,” a podcast about crystal meth use on the islands.

While podcasting is alluring and relatively easy to produce, journalism has a lot of new toys right now, including data visualization, augmented reality and virtual reality.

As a journalistic medium, podcasting is growing and reaches a lot of people already, with more than 57 million monthly listeners. Yet that still is only a small amount (21 percent) of U.S. media consumers, 12 and older. Part of the barrier, I think, is just the technical trouble of putting the podcasts on the right device at the right time. That is not a particularly difficult activity but also not as easy as turning on a radio or television. As a bonus, advertising – at this point – has not flooded and totally corrupted podcasts, either.

I suspect that most people simply are not aware of the diversity and quality of content available (mostly for free). Besides the links provided already, here are just a few lists of suggestions, from sources such as The Atlantic, Time Magazine and New York University’s journalism program.

Or maybe you just want to know more in-depth about what it might take to impeach a president. If that’s the case, podcasts from Slate, The 1A and Civics 101 might provide some helpful insights.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.