Interviewer: Chris Sutcliffe
Chris: Can you tell us about Trump Inc and its mission?
Meg: Trump Inc started as an informal collaboration between ProPublica, this nonprofit investigative outlet, and WNYC, this nonprofit local public radio station in New York. And they collaborated around this story about the Trump SoHo, which was a hotel condo development in Manhattan. And coming out of their reporting on this project, they got together and said, ‘What other stories might we want to do about Trump now that he’s president? What other business reporting can we can we do in this administration?’ And they went into a room and got this whiteboard out and wrote down everything they could think of… And what they had in the end, was not so much a list of reporting ideas, but a very long list of unanswerable questions.
I’m amazed there was any space left on that whiteboard.
And they said, ‘Well that’s interesting. Maybe we should do something about those questions.’ And they came up with a podcast as the way to approach all of these questions about Trump’s business that can’t be answered. Because in a podcast you can talk about uncertainty in a way that you can’t really get into in a sort of big investigative piece.
In an investigative piece you have to draw conclusions, you have to say for sure. But in a podcast you can lean more on this format of conversation to explore questions that you don’t have answers to or talk about what’s interesting about those questions.
And so, we sort of came together, they brought me on to produce the show and we came up with, not so much a mission for the podcast, but sort of a driving question, which is, we have this unprecedented situation where we have a president with a sprawling business empire who has not divested from it. It’s in a trust but not a blind trust. He can still draw income from it whenever he wants. And there’s really an incredible lack of disclosure. And what we try to do is solve that problem.
We’ve opened the project up to members of the public who want to contribute questions, story ideas, tips. We love getting tips. And we also work with other journalists, which is something that I have come to understand, is a little unusual on this beat. It’s a very competitive beat covering the president. We’ve created this space with this podcast where people can come and share the stories that we’re working on. We hand off tips that aren’t really going to be good for us. Maybe it’s the type of story that a journalist at The Washington Post might cover, but not something that we have the skills or the time to cover, and approach this project like a group project, rather than something that we’re competing with each other on.
That is really really interesting. I suppose that’s in part because of who ProPublica are and what they do. It wouldn’t necessarily be the case if it was purely a for-profit organization.
I think that’s true. And they have a very open-source ethos in their newsroom. They publish all of the documents that they get, they really try to bring in other news organizations, local journalism organizations, to collaborate.
I think that we have made a pretty strong case for this model, and not just because we are uncovering stories and getting a better sense of how the Trump organization works, but the journalists that we work with, I think really enjoy working in this way. It’s a very human way to do your work. And people just, I think, have a lot of fun when they work with us.
You mentioned back at the start that the podcasting medium affords you the opportunity to do stuff that isn’t necessarily as structured as say, a long form article would be where you have to draw conclusions. Is that informality a strength when it comes to covering something as important as the Trump administration or does that informality sometimes make your job harder, trying to marry that informality to the importance of the mission that you do?
Well, it’s a very studied informality, and at some point in our production process, we have a script that has every word that’s been said in the podcast written down, and we sit down and we go over that script and we fact check it very carefully. So, it might sound informal, but we sort of put it through the same process that all other journalism has to go through. It’s more the form that it takes that allows us to do that.
I think the other thing is that when you work on these investigative stories, I don’t necessarily think they need to be so formal, but somehow a lot of investigative reporting does have a very formal and stiff tone. We’re interested in disrupting that model and making people care about the stories by entertaining them as they listened to them. And I think that ProPublica sees a lot of value in this podcast for that reason.
That is such a good testament to the value of the podcasting, the podcast as a medium I suppose. Trump Inc has this incredible team behind it, I was looking on the website, and is there anything that you find really surprises people about the make up of the team, or even about the product that you put out? Is there anything that really takes people aback when you reveal a little tidbit of information about it?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I mean, I think that the thing that surprises people about all podcast production is that there is a producer who makes the podcast. It doesn’t just happen in this magical studio where people come together, and everyone’s brilliant, and everything that they say is amazing.
All I can guarantee you that’s not the case. The amount of editing we have to do every week on our news roundup.
And when you’re at a party and you say that you work in podcasting, people are often like, ‘Oh I love podcasts. You know my favorite shows are Radiolab and Invisibelia, and This American Life and, what do you do?’ Well I don’t make a show like that. But you sort of have to educate people about what your work is if you want them to understand how difficult your job is.
But the people who work on this show… I mean I have really come to love them. They are so brilliant, they are amazing reporters, and they get together every week and just work on this project together. And it’s so fun to be a part of a team like that.
Well you got your start personally in journalism at Michigan Radio. So what was your position there, and what does producer entail then for those people who don’t necessarily know exactly what you do? This would be a good opportunity for you to just point people towards this!
So, I started at Michigan Radio as a production intern working on All Things Considered, which is this afternoon news show distributed by NPR, and what the local stations do, is they build some news programming around this national show and they distribute it. And then I worked on a project called Changing Years, which was a local journalism collaboration between a handful of Midwestern local public radio newsrooms that were focused on this bigger story of the changing Midwest economy. And my role in that project was a mix of reporting and audience engagement.
After doing that I went back to being a producer. The role of a producer is really different depending on what show you work on and what shop you work in. On Trump Inc., it’s a mix of project management, so how the whole team comes together every week to make the show, and also doing the work of storytelling and having a really clear vision for what the big story is. So, stepping in and writing, or reporting, or editing on Trump Inc., we’re a very collaborative team, so sometimes we take turns being the producer…
Nobody has offered to take on the production schedule for me yet, but other parts of production, we can pass it around to give different people on the team a chance to do the work in a different way.
That again is something I’m very jealous of, the very fluid nature of the work sounds like something that more people should be doing particularly around projects like this.
Well it’s something that I learned. I mean, I don’t know if I brought that to the team or if it was sort of part of the team already, but it’s something that I learned working at BuzzFeed, where I was part of the audio team there. And we had a group of producers, we would call ourselves the pod squad. It was an all-women production team, and it’s the most collaborative environment that I’ve ever worked in. Everybody worked out each other’s projects, we really saw ourselves as a small studio where everyone was working together to get things done. And I mean it’s a model that I want to look for in all of the work that I do going forward.
So in the UK at least, there are some indications that podcasting might be about to disrupt traditional talk radio in the same way that Spotify and other streaming services have done to music-based radio in the UK. So, what is it then about podcasting as a medium that is so appealing and that’s led it to grow to the point where now some talk radio is looking at it a little bit askance?
Yeah, I think that relationship with the host is something that you have to have in podcasting that you don’t necessarily have to have on terrestrial radio because there’s a more limited offering. This model incentivizes that kind of personality-driven content.
And I also think it’s because it’s on demand, you can listen to it whenever you want, wherever you are. It’s for the most part, completely free. It is pretty high quality for a completely free programming. You can get a lot of the things that you can’t get on the radio on podcasts, and there’s a seemlingly endless amount of it. I think it would be really hard to run out of good podcasts to listen to. It’s very captivating in that way.
It’s interesting as well that a lot of the strengths that you mentioned, that the idea that you do have this one-to-one relationship with hosts, was necessarily born out of the fact that, for the most part, podcasting was done in a very cheap and cheerful way where all you had was a microphone, the host and the research they’d done. So, the limitations of the medium have really enabled it to grow and almost surpass its more traditional counterpart.
Yeah. And I think that those same factors are also limiting for podcasting, right. Because, it still is very expensive to make quality in-depth news programming for example. And I think in the US, we have seen that there are a couple of podcasts that offer some kind of news programming that may be drawing people away from public radio stations, like NPR.
But it’s really difficult to have a robust newsroom behind an independent podcast that can give you the same thing that a radio newsroom can. And the shows that are successful news podcasts, like The Daily or Post Reports, have these giant newsrooms behind them, and they’re taking that journalism and putting it on a new platform.
And so, how do you foresee the podcast industry changing over next few years? We’ve seen Spotify making some big acquisitions this week, both on the kind of content creation side, and on the monetization side. As the medium becomes slightly more mature, how do you sort of see it all shaking out? Will professionalism come more to the fore, or will it still maintain its informal nature?
I wish I knew. When I get together with friends and we talk about this, people have theories but I don’t think anybody has a really strong evidence-backed, understanding of what’s going to happen to podcasting, beyond the broadest trends that lead to things like Spotify buying Gimlet.
What I’m seeing now, and it’s sort of the shorter term, is that a lot of organizations really want to try podcasting, that they’re really excited about it as a way to grow their digital news. Well, we’ve been talking about this new program that Slate launched this week, Supporting Cast, which is this layer that allows podcasters to create a membership model with their listeners and provide higher value content that they charge for, basically.
And because podcasting is RSS-based, and podcasters are dependent on these platforms like, Apple and Spotify to release their content, it’s really hard for the creator to get in there and say, ‘Why don’t you pay me a little bit of money for this’. Do you do you have Patreon in the UK?
We do, you have a few very high profile successes, but for the most part the ones that really work are the ones that are U.S. based.
So, I I give one dollar a month to one of my favorite podcasts, Who Weekly, which is a podcast about celebrities that you’ve never heard of. Because I am a contributing member of their Patreon, I get a special RSS feed, sort of a secret RSS feed with bonus content that I can listen to whenever I want. Even though I make podcasts, I still have not figured out how to actually access that RSS feed. I’m sure I could do a little bit more research to figure it out, but it’s pretty challenging for someone who publishes RSS feeds to not be able to know how to do it. So, I’m excited to see Slate offer this.
I also am excited about it because I think right now the podcast revenue model encourages all kinds of things that are not the kinds of shows that I want to work on. The ad revenue model for podcasts encourages you to make the cheapest podcast you can, because you want to make those ad dollars pay for the production that you’re doing, and it pushes you into this personality-driven programming where you want to build a relationship with your audience, build loyalty with your audience, in the cheapest way possible, which is ‘two people sitting around a microphone’ format. And then you can make the small ad dollars that you could get out of podcasting, cover your production costs, and then maybe make a little money on top of that.
This membership model, or this model where people pay for the content… I think incentivizes creators to make a product that has a lot of value, rather than something that is lean enough to be profitable. And I think that this model, which is in many ways the public radio model, the ProPublica model, really prioritizes the work, rather than the business of making that work.
So, I don’t know if it’s going to work. I don’t know if this is going to help people make money off of making their podcasts. But, I think it sets up a structure, that I think is very encouraging, and I think is really good for podcast creators.
So there’s a bit of a segway there into how you actually manage the relationship with your own audience. So, to what extent are you going back and forth with your audience to get feedback, and maybe even develop new ideas for the show?
We have a tip line, and we have a researcher who manages the tip line and reads every email that we get, responds to many of them. Sometimes we just get kind of basic research questions. People are curious about something and we’ll answer that question. And sometimes we get real tips that turn into stories that nobody else has had.
So, we had a tipster email us to tip us off to a story about a Trump golf course, that had ordered this sort of replica of the presidential seal to use as a yard marker, for the forty fourth yard they were putting down these presidential seals or they were going to. That’s actually illegal. You can’t use the presidential seal for anything other than the president. And it was this bizarre overlap between Trump’s business and his presidency. And we were able to get that story because somebody told us about it, and because we opened our tip line to people who wanted to contribute.