NY Times “in exclusive talks” to acquire Serial Productions, potential cost of $75M

We knew that the New York Times was interested in buying Serial Productions, the podcast house which makes Serial, the most successful true crime podcast franchise of the last six years. We reported such in January.

Now we learn from the Times itself that it is exclusively discussing the acquisition with Serial. That word comes from Ben Smith, formerly heading editorial at BuzzFeed, and now thew new Media Columnist at the NYT. In his first column, which is gathering attention for asserting that the Times’s success might be bad for journalism (Why the Success of The New York Times May Be Bad News for Journalism, behind a paywall).

As an aside to that startling claim, Smith writes this: “The paper is now quietly shopping for dominance in an adjacent industry: audio. The Times is in exclusive talks to acquire Serial Productions, the breakthrough podcast studio that has attracted more than 300 million downloads.” The article cites two anonymous people as saying that Serial is valued at $75-million, but that the Times “is expected” to pay less (for unstated reasons).

Perhaps most interesting, Ben Smith speculates that a Times-acquired Serial, along with The Daily (the Times’s morning news podcast and one of the most successful podcasts in the world), “could form the basis for an ambitious new paid product.” Smith says that Times executives believe that business could be the start of an “HBO of podcasts.”

This informed speculation would obviously be bad news for The Daily listeners all of whom are accustomed to free listening. The NY Times does have some facility with carving out discrete subscription products; one example is the Times Crossword, the digital version of which is sold separately from the digital subscription to the Times editorial content.

“HBO of podcasts” is an interesting characterization of a speculative NY Times audio subscription — different from the much-bandied concept of “Netflix of podcasts” which is sometimes applied as a would-be description of Luminary and other paywall-for-podcasts business plans. The HBO label is presumably meant to evoke a content environment that is smaller and more refined than Netflix’s big bucket of original and non-original shows.

Brad Hill