Announcing the debut of ‘What Works,’ a podcast about the future of local news

I am thrilled to announce the debut of our podcast, “What Works: The Future of Local News,” from Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

Every month — and soon, perhaps, every week — former Boston Globe editor Ellen Clegg and I will talk to journalists, policymakers and entrepreneurs about efforts they’re making to keep local news alive. (We’re working on a book with the same name.) Corporate chains and hedge funds are squeezing the life out of local news. There is a better way. We and our guests are telling that story.

In our first episode, I interview Massachusetts state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat who co-sponsored legislation to launch a commission that will study the future of local news in the state. (Note: I’ll be a member of the commission.) Ehrlich lays out her vision and underscores the role that local journalism plays in a democracy. Ellen and I share a few quick takes on the news as well.

You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Pocket Casts, and we’re aiming for more platforms soon. We hope you’ll give it a listen — we’re very excited about this project, which has been long in the making.

Also, many thanks to Alison Booth, who designed the graphic that accompanies our podcast, and to Promiser, whose song “WOW!” is our theme. Wow indeed.

Why the golden age of podcasts may be coming to an end

You might look at it as the arrival of podcasts as a big business. My fear about what it really means is that the golden age of podcasts is coming to an end.

Anne Steele of The Wall Street Journal (one of our great Northeastern journalism graduates, by the way) reports on the looming podcast war between Apple, Spotify and a few smaller players. It sounds like it’s going to be just like video streaming services — if you subscribe to Spotify, as I do, you won’t be able to listen to podcasts that are exclusively on Apple, and vice-versa.

Steele quotes a business analyst named Daniel Ives as saying this about Apple:

Even though they have the keys to the kingdom in terms of overall customer base and the App Store and broader content, what’s going to differentiate them is not just aggregation, it’s exclusive content.

Just what we need — another walled garden. And look, I’m glad that this will enable podcasters to make some money beyond the ad revenue they get from the likes of MailChimp and Dollar Shave. But it also represents the end of something special — just as the rise of paywalls about a dozen years ago ended the open web.

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It’s no surprise that Google Podcasts include hateful content

I think there’s something of a category error in today’s front-page New York Times story on the hateful and false content you can find on Google Podcasts. Reporter Reggie Ugwu repeats on several occasions that Google Podcasts includes some pretty terrible stuff from neo-Nazis, white supremacists and conspiracy theorists that you won’t find at Google’s competitors. He writes:

Google Podcasts — whose app has been downloaded more than 19 million times, according to Apptopia — stands alone among major platforms in its tolerance of hate speech and other extremist content. A recent nonexhaustive search turned up more than two dozen podcasts from white supremacists and pro-Nazi groups, offering a buffet of slurs and conspiracy theories. None of the podcasts appeared on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Stitcher.

The problem here is that Apple, Spotify and Stitcher are all trying to offer a curated experience. Google’s DNA is in search. If you Google “InfoWars,” you expect to be taken to Alex Jones’ hallucinatory home of hate and disinformation. And you are. So if you search Google Podcasts, why should that be any different? Indeed, that’s exactly the reasoning Google invoked when Ugwu contacted them for comment:

Told of the white supremacist and pro-Nazi content on its platform and asked about its policy, a Google spokeswoman, Charity Mhende, compared Google Podcasts to Google Search. She said that the company did not want to “limit what people are able to find,” and that it only blocks content “in rare circumstances, largely guided by local law.”

Let me be clear. It doesn’t have to be this way. Google could choose to keep its searches wide open while providing users of Google Podcasts with the same safe experience that its competitors offer. And maybe it should. It’s just that I find it unremarkable that a search company would run its business differently from those whose business model is based on creating a safe, walled-in environment.

I’m hardly a Google fanboy. I’d like to see it broken up so that it can no longer use search to leverage its advertising business to the disadvantage of publishers. But unless you think it ought to stop showing hate-filled websites when you search for them, then I don’t think you should be surprised that it also shows you hate-filled podcasts.