Verge Meets: Theo Balcomb from The New York Times

Theo Balcomb has built an impressive career in journalism by bringing the news to people via audio. After previously working as a producer at NPR’s All Things Considered, she joined The New York Times in 2017. There she became one of the founders and producers of The Daily, the Times’ daily news podcast. The Daily now reaches one million listeners a day and can be heard both online and on radio stations in the United States. I had the opportunity to talk to Theo about her career, the process of creating a daily podcast, and the joys and pressures of reporting the news to such a large audience.

 

Tell me a little bit about your career.

I have a mission for my life which is to bring the news to people to create a more informed world. To work toward that goal, I was the Supervising Producer at a popular afternoon radio program called All Things Considered at NPR (I was the youngest person to hold that role). From there, I went to The New York Times to create “The Daily” in 2017. We now have an audience of one million listens a day. And I’ve come back to the radio, bringing The Daily to over 100 stations a day.

While I grew up on my family’s small dairy farm in Maine, I knew I wanted to get to New York City.

What originally drew you to a career in media and journalism?

I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was a kid and first reported and edited a newspaper with my best friend for our tiny New England town. Notable stories: a deep dive into dentistry when my BFF had her baby teeth pulled, an update on a new garden on our farm, movie reviews of the latest releases available at the public library. All this for the low, low price of $1 per newspaper. While I grew up on my family’s small dairy farm in Maine, I knew I wanted to get to New York City. I went to Barnard College, the women’s college that’s part of Columbia University, and I interned at all kinds of places, trying to find the best fit for me. One summer, I came back to Maine and worked at Maine Public Radio. Audio was the perfect fit. I got to talk to anybody I wanted to and share their stories with listeners. It’s a beautiful dance of information that drew me in immediately and continues to satisfy me everyday.

You’re currently working at The New York Times, and previously you worked at NPR, both of which have large audiences. What is it like working for such well-known companies? Do you feel pressure knowing that a lot of people will hear your work?

Every day I feel the weight of the listener on my shoulders. That’s a good thing. I love our medium because we become part of people’s lives in a way that few other things do. At both NPR and The Daily, we know how much our listeners value us and we strive to respect them because they’ve brought us into their lives in such an intimate way. On the first anniversary of The Daily, we did a callout asking people to show us photos of where they listen to the show. A bunch of people sent photos in and they honestly make me cry, each and every one of them. It’s people walking on the beach, on a hike with their dog, in a little nook of their attic with a pot of tea, with their kid at the kitchen table. My sweet boyfriend made a collage of a few of them and I look at it everyday and remember why we do what we do. All those listeners out there, hanging on our every word. So, yes! Large audiences do fill me with a lot of pressure feelings. But mostly I feel it is such an honor to get to make news for people who’ve been kind enough to bring us into their lives, day in and day out.

We put ourselves in the position of the listener whenever we’re weighing which stories to cover.

You’re currently a producer at The Daily, which you also helped start. What was the process of starting a brand-new podcast like?

Terrifying, thrilling, exhausting, fulfilling. It’s a rollercoaster when you start something new, especially something that I’d been wanting to make for so long. Lots of people told me it was a bad idea to make a daily news podcast, but I knew it needed to exist in the world. I wanted to make something for my friends — friends who I knew wanted to be aware of the world around them but couldn’t really find a news source that worked for them. The biggest thrill of this whole rollercoaster is that it’s worked out just as I imagined: my friends and family savor Daily episodes over their morning coffee, debate them at their dinner tables, cry over them on their subway commute.

How do you choose what stories to cover on The Daily? Do you have a lot of freedom when it comes to choosing content?

We are the luckiest journalists in the world because we get to produce stories from the treasure trove that is The New York Times newsroom. We’re free to do stories as big as our imagination and ambition (and deadline) allow. Our gauge for stories is basically: what do we want to know about today? What outstanding questions do we have? What do we not truly understand about what’s going on in the world today? What do we want to feel tomorrow? My colleague Andy Mills, who created the show with Lisa Tobin, Michael Barbaro and me, always said in the early days: what are we going to feel after this ep? When it comes to breaking news, we try to gauge whether or not we’ll cover a story by asking: if we woke up tomorrow and we didn’t hear this on The Daily, would we be mad? If the answer is yes, we gotta tear the show up and make a new one. We put ourselves in the position of the listener whenever we’re weighing which stories to cover.

What would you say a typical workday looks like at The Daily?

Everyday is different which is why I love daily news and can’t seem to quit it. On a good day here’s how it goes: 9:30am editorial meeting with all the desk heads and top editors. One member of The Daily team attends and figures out what the reporting targets are for the day. 10:15am Daily editorial meeting with just our team. We all talk out what we’re most interested in and bat around all kinds of thoughts for that next episode and the days to come. Once we decide what we’re going after, we divide and conquer. Some team members go to find sources for the ep, some start on a script, some scour for the archival tape and music we’ll want. We tape our interviews early afternoon and then we’re in post-production until we wrap. This all goes haywire if news hits. So we always have back-up plans on back-up plans. We never stop thinking about what’s next.

We stand out in this political climate because we aren’t trying to shout at you. We’re sharing people’s stories and experiences. What you do with those stories is up to you.

The Daily is podcast, but it’s part of The New York Times, which is a big print newspaper as well. How does presenting the news in a podcast format differ from print media?

In the podcast, we can be as conversational and emotional as we see fit. We let reporters and sources be themselves in a way that is human and kind. We are transparent about our process and strive to be forthright about what we know and don’t know.Obviously the podcast is a relatively new form of media compared to print. How do you think technology is changing the way we engage with the news?

In a way, our podcast is a new format for delivering the news. In another way, our podcast is using the world’s oldest vehicle for communication: talking. So yes, we’re bringing people the news in an on-demand audio format that hasn’t existed in this way before, but we’re also trafficking in the simplest equation in news. We talk, you listen. I think the simplicity of our show is one of the biggest reasons people have responded so well to it.

With the tense political climate in the United States right now, the media often receives a lot of criticism from people across the political spectrum. Does this present unique challenges to your job?

One of the most important founding principles of our show is that we’re going to be unbiased. For us, this hasn’t been a challenge but rather a blessing. We stand out in this political climate because we aren’t trying to shout at you. We’re sharing people’s stories and experiences. What you do with those stories is up to you.

Verge’s audience is primarily students, many of them around university age. What do you think about how young people are engaging with news / current events right now? Why do you think it’s important that young people stay engaged?

What we hear from listeners (so many of them are young) is that keeping up with the news is really overwhelming or anxiety producing. What we do at The Daily is try to quiet the noise and present what’s going on in a clear, empathic and measured way. If you can lock into a news source, whether it’s us or another reputable shop, I think you’ll find the world looks a whole lot less scary when you understand what’s going on. More information means less worry, I believe.

You can listen to The Daily online here: www.nytimes.com/podcasts/the-daily