The Voice of a Generation

Michael Barbaro made the New York Times podcast The Daily a raging success. Or is it the other way around?

Photo: David Williams
Photo: David Williams
Photo: David Williams

Dana,” says the voice you know by now, in audible all caps. “WHEN DID THE UNITED STATES START TO FEEL A SENSE OF ANXIETY …” A pregnant pause. “Too much,” he says. And so Michael Barbaro, the voice of the New York Times, takes a breath, turns back to the Times reporter Dana Goldstein, and starts again.

This, as Barbaro announces every weekday morning, is The Daily, the Times’ tentpole podcast. In a studio tucked in the back of the New York Times Building on Eighth Avenue, in front of a four-legged spider of microphones, Barbaro spends most days interviewing his fellow Times journalists about a single splashy story of the moment, a deepish dive into the day’s news. Shrewdly edited for commute consumption (episodes hover around 22 to 25 minutes long, just about two minutes shy of the average American’s schlep), The Daily offers, if not wonkish completeness, a kind of cocktail-party competence. “You listen to The Daily and you’re better equipped to speak at a dinner party,” says Jenna Weiss-Berman of the podcast shop Pineapple Street Studios. “And that’s all you really want.”

Podcasting is an intimate medium, and podcasts live or die by their hosts. In the 40-year-old Barbaro, The Daily has found one who connects unusually, even unexpectedly, well. The Daily has turned Barbaro from a career Timesman into a celebrity, one with TV appearances, adoring fans, loving parodies, and a personal life chronicled by “Page Six.” The Daily introduced Barbaro to the wider world; it also introduced him to his fiancée.

In person, he is owlishly handsome (the little round glasses he used to wear amplified the effect, though he has lately swapped them for more rectangular frames), of roughly average height, and indifferently dressed, with a corona of salt-and-pepper curls and a scruffy, too-busy-to-shave beard. In 2017, People magazine named him one of the 15 sexiest newsmen.

But most of Barbaro’s admirers don’t see him. They hear him. The appeal is the voice and the peculiar prosody that gives The Daily its pulse. (“I think I like the way @mikiebarb says ‘natalie’ more than the way my girlfriend says it?,” Times reporter and sometime Daily guest host Natalie Kitroeff wrote on Twitter. “Help.”) His delivery sits between the clipped authority of NPR and the pirate-radio shagginess of the archetypal podcaster; it is remarkably free of filler (a beloved grandfather, his story goes, trained the ums and likes out of him) with deliberative pauses that never hit exactly where you expect. These gaps are practical (they make it easy to edit tape), but they’re also stylistic, a soothing, if syncopated, snare-drum beat.

That voice is a development of the show, which is not to say an affectation. Barbaro (BAR-BAR-O; he says each syllable is stressed equally, though on-air it sounds like he’s giving the O short shrift) cops to having undergone “a second pubescence” finding his voice on tape. Now he doesn’t put it on or take it off. It’s how he orders at Starbucks as much as how he queries his colleagues on the show. “I don’t remember him quite as staccato in real life,” says Sam Dolnick, who oversees the Times’ audio programming as well as its film and TV projects and has known Barbaro since their days together in the “Metro” section in 2009. “But now when you hear him talking, he does do it,” he says. “I have a little bit of trouble listening to The Daily because I know Michael so well,” says Ross Douthat, the Times opinion columnist and a friend since middle school. “I can’t get over listening to him do his radio-host voice, knowing him since he was 13 years old.”

A staff meeting of The Daily in December. Photo: David Williams

For the Times, audio represents, in Dolnick’s words, “the next big opportunity.” The Daily’s audience skews tantalizingly young — three-quarters are under 40, almost a decade younger than the average print reader — and is impressively, even unnervingly, committed. More than one person I interviewed confessed to harboring a romantic interest in Barbaro based on his voice alone. In three years, The Daily has become an integral part of the “report,” as the paper (increasingly not just a paper) calls its coverage. “The Daily is the modern front page of the New York Times,” says Dolnick. In fact, it’s bigger. More than 2 million listeners download each episode, compared with the 443,000 who read the weekday paper in print. “The Daily is a monster hit with an astonishingly valuable audience,” CEO Mark Thompson told investors on an earnings call in November, “and it just continues to grow.”

According to Podtrac, which publishes rankings of the month’s top podcasts by unique U.S. audience, The Daily was the No. 1 podcast every single month of 2019 and in the No. 1 or No. 2 spot for all of 2018. (Podtrac only considers podcasts that participate in its service, which excludes certain monster hits, like The Joe Rogan Experience, that do not opt in.) The Daily was the most downloaded show on Apple Podcasts in 2018. In October, the Times threw a party for its billionth download.

That scale is thanks largely to the work of Barbaro and the editors and producers who make The Daily every day: Lisa Tobin, 34, who runs the Times’ audio team; Theo Balcomb, 32, the executive producer of the show; and the now-30-strong audio team that has mushroomed out of what had been, as recently as 2017, a staff you could count on one hand with room to spare. When, that January, Balcomb arrived from All Things Considered and The Daily began, it was four people in a storage closet on the building’s 16th floor. (Andy Mills, formerly of Radiolab, filled out the original team.) Now 16 or 17 are working on the show at any given time with the rest dispersed on other audio projects.

Every morning, team members gather over MacBooks to plan for the next day, later that week, and beyond, scouring top stories to figure out what will connect with an audio audience, batting around ideas, arguing for passion projects (Taylor Swift was the subject of a recent vigorous debate), and hashing out logistics (who can be reached in Hong Kong in the midst of the protest demonstrations there?). Human interest can sell a story, or an element of shock or surprise, or even just great tape. (One editor announced that a writer covering the climate crisis hadn’t recorded any interviews during the reporting of a piece in the weather-ravaged Florida Keys. The entire room groaned in unison.) The ranks swell nearly weekly as the Times brings in new journalists from public radio and competing podcast companies, who join the shared Google Docs in which the shows are scripted and edited.

Despite the group effort, Barbaro is the public face and, accordingly, gets much of the public credit. The Times, pinnacle of newspapering though it may be — it considers itself the paper of record, not a paper of record — has historically been leery of creating stars. It may pride itself on having the best in the business, but they work for the Times, not the other way around. Jill Abramson, the paper’s former executive editor, laid down the party line while negotiating (and ultimately failing) to keep Nate Silver, the polling guru behind FiveThirtyEight, who in 2013 was considering an exit. “The New York Times,” she told his agent, “is always the prettiest girl at the party.”

Barbaro had been a distinguished reporter for the Times as well as a savvy operator in its internal politics. His is a “tenacity that maybe has shades of ruthlessness,” his old friend Rebecca Angelo, who followed Barbaro into journalism before becoming a screenwriter, puts it. He’d already been a vocal presence in the newsroom, highly regarded by himself and others. He hobnobbed at the paper’s highest echelons, hosting, for instance, a party for his new colleague Maggie Haberman when she joined the Times that was attended by the paper’s elite. The gatherings have only gotten more glittering. Invites for a spring party he hosted last year went to A. G. Sulzberger, the Times’ publisher, and Meredith Kopit Levien, its chief operating officer, in addition to a number of political reporters and editors.

With The Daily, Barbaro has risen above the competitive ranks of reporters elbowing one another for assignments — I was one from 2014 to 2019, though I didn’t know Barbaro — to ascend along a parallel track that, before him, didn’t exist. He now has a bird’s-eye view of a highly segmented newsroom and a rare perch from which he can, like almost no one else inside the institution, elevate a story. None of this was a given. He went into what could have been a new-media backwater and, practically overnight, became an unusual thing in the Times firmament: a star whose shine doesn’t dim outside the building’s walls.

Now Barbaro gets booked on Late Night With Seth Meyers; Liev Schreiber played him on Saturday Night Live. (“Nailed it,” Dolnick says.) Vanity Fair has called him “the Ira Glass of the New York Times.” “I feel sad for him, if that’s all he gets,” Glass, a Daily fan, tells me. “I think he aspires to higher.” (“When people ask me what podcast they should be listening to,” he adds, “it’s my go-to.”) The Onion is launching a parody news podcast this month, The Topical, with a fictional host partly inspired by Barbaro. And his is the voice of the house: When you go to an event at TheTimesCenter, where the Times Company stages ticketed lectures, panel discussions, and readings, it’s often Michael Barbaro who pipes out of the speakers asking you to please silence your cell phones.

“He loves it,” says Samantha Henig, who was editorial director of audio for the Times until last year and is now the executive editor for strategy at BuzzFeed. “He’s one of those people who feeds off the energy of people.” She recalls an event The Daily held featuring Barbaro at TheTimesCenter where he stuck around longer than anyone else to bask in the adoration of fans. “He just didn’t want to leave,” she says. “The rest of us left, and he was still out there. At some point, I came back out to be like, ‘Michael, come on,’ and he wouldn’t.” “Serene is the word I would use,” says Douthat, “about this weird eminence he has gained.”

That eminence can come in handy. In a tough spot negotiating access? Get MB — as the staff refers to him — to call. “We’ve gotta have Michael do this,” Alexandra Leigh Young, one of The Daily’s producers, said in a meeting about working to get Bernie Sanders’s camp onboard for a series of interviews the show planned to do with the Democratic-primary front-runners. “People respond to Michael.” (Sanders signed on.) Within the Times, too, journalists know that appearing on The Daily can boost their profile, and that their colleagues (and higher-ups) will notice; Dolnick compared it to a public report card. Which is not to say its host has gotten drunk with power, yet. On one of my previous visits to The Daily’s war rooms, Barbaro was off-site, down in Atlanta for the Sanders interview. He called in to a scripting meeting from the local radio station where he would record while on the road, noting that its microphones didn’t have noise-blocking windscreens. “You should pitch a fit,” someone in the room joked. Barbaro sounded amused. “That’s definitely the impression I’d like to leave,” he said dryly. But Tobin jumped in to tease him all the same, imagining a diva tantrum: “ ‘My contract specifies windscreens!’ ”

Former colleagues have leveraged their Times success into starring roles, like Brian Stelter, the former Times media reporter who leapfrogged to CNN. But The Daily is tethered to the Times, which it depends on for the stories and storytellers it offers up every day, and Barbaro seems entirely at peace within its walls. He left the NewsGuild of New York, the union that represents the Times, when he started the show, and recently renegotiated his position in light of the podcast’s success, but he hasn’t signed with any of the agents who have called him. “It never occurred to me to not be a Times employee,” Barbaro says. “My abiding goal in life was to become a New York Times reporter. When I became the host of The Daily and the show took off, it never occurred to me to do anything but remain a Times journalist.”

From left, Lisa Tobin, Theo Balcomb, and Barbaro. Photo: David Williams

The Daily is practically the first of its kind: Podcast executives described to me kicking around the idea of daily shows in the past but discarding them as too labor intensive and expensive to be worthwhile, especially given that they were bound to become stale almost immediately. But in the wake of the success of The Daily, rival news organizations have created their own, like NPR’s Up First and Vox’s Today, Explained. (New York is a Vox Media property.) “I welcome the competition,” Balcomb says, as well she might. For the moment, The Daily trounces it.

Still, making The Daily is a huge effort. The days can be punishingly long, and the show eventually instituted a four-day workweek for producers, acknowledging that those staying late into the night to close an episode effectively work two days in one. Technically, Lisa Chow, a Daily editor, explained to me, the show should be finished by 3 a.m., when a sound engineer in London takes over to put on the finishing touches and get it delivered to your phone by 6 a.m. New York time. But on one day that I observed The Daily, during the Sondland hearings, the recording and editing began around 9:30 a.m., and Balcomb didn’t leave until 4:30 a.m. Alex Halpern Levy, a speechwriter and political strategist and one of Barbaro’s best friends, told me Barbaro carries a microphone around with him to rerecord the “what else you need to know today” segments that end every episode, in case of news developments. In order to get clean sound, he has been known to burrow beneath bedcovers.

In this kind of pressurized, all-hands-on-deck atmosphere — we are building a culture of editorial rigor, collaboration, healthy communication reads the statement of purpose on one of the staff rooms’ whiteboard walls — intense relationships naturally develop. The most intense is one that no one predicted.

When The Daily began, Barbaro was a married man. He and his husband, Timothy Levin, an educator with a test-prep company, had tied the knot in their Upper West Side apartment in 2014. So it was with some surprise that rumors began to circulate last year that he had started a relationship with a colleague: Lisa Tobin, who herself had been engaged when she arrived at the Times.

The relationship caused some uneasiness in the building, both among The Daily’s staff and among those higher up. Barbaro does not report to Tobin and never did — both report directly to Dolnick — so an explicit power differential was not at play, but the success of the company’s young, still-fragile moneymaker might have hung in the balance. The secrecy surrounding the relationship did not do much to ease fears. When “Page Six” finally published the news that Barbaro and Levin were in divorce proceedings and that he and Tobin were together, the anonymous sources quoted seemed almost palpably relieved. Newsroom romances are not uncommon (Dolnick met his wife in a newsroom, he points out), but usually a paper’s brass can separate the partners to ensure no appearance of bias or favor. “That doesn’t work on The Daily,” Dolnick says. “You couldn’t send one here or the other there. But we’re now well over a year in, and it works.” The couple try to treat each other like colleagues, and nothing more, in front of the rest of the staff.

Yet the show remains stubbornly at the heart of their relationship, at least for now, a fact even Barbaro acknowledges. “It’s independent and interrelated,” he says, “but it’s not based on the show.” Of all the people in the world Barbaro might have fallen in love with, Tobin is a conspicuous choice, the co-author of his current success — a collaborator but also a Pygmalion. “She produces him,” one journalist who knows them both says. In other words, she has coaxed out a brighter, shinier Barbaro both on tape and off.

Barbaro and Tobin are understandably disinclined to discuss the more prurient details of their courtship and relationship. He declines to define his sexual orientation or whether he considers it to have shifted. (Gawker once dinged Out magazine for not including him in its roundup of the “gay mafia” at the Times.) Though even some close friends say they were shocked by the developments in his personal life, “he goes through the world in the same way to me,” one told me. The biggest change may be that he has moved to Brooklyn, where he and Tobin, who are now engaged, bought an apartment together last spring.

The day you’re on The Daily, you hear from your friends from elementary school, your college buddies. My mom’s best friend’s daughter gets in touch,” says Dana Goldstein, the education reporter who was on the show in December to discuss America’s anxiety over its high-schoolers’ stagnating standardized-test scores. “My friends don’t typically congratulate me when I have an A1 story” — a Timesism for the front page.

She pulled up a text message from a friend in London whose interest borders on the obsessive. “She said, quote, ‘I noticed the pause between “This” and “is The Daily” is getting longer,’ ” she read. “ ‘I am so fascinated. Tell us everything.’ ”

Why does The Daily work? There is, of course, Barbaro’s ASMR, and the medium brings its own intimacy. “It’s hard reading the transcript of a conversation with a person, regardless of how powerful that conversation was,” Tobin says. “It’s not the same thing as hearing the tremor in their voice as they answer the question.” The Daily brings in the voices not only of reporters but, often, of their sources or even its own; in narrativizing the news, it makes it both more approachable and more digestible than the front page. And the daily-news format seems to work well for podcasting; Up First is routinely right behind The Daily in Podtrac rankings. But mostly the secret seems to be access to the inner workings of the New York Times. The Daily, like an aural cousin to Spotlight or All the President’s Men, takes care to leave the process in the product. The journalists who come on the program report back on their stories to Barbaro, who plays the audience stand-in and goads them along with context-establishing, sometimes faux-naïve questions (“What is NATO, again?”). The Daily lets listeners hear the logistical mundanities: the voice of the hotel clerk as Barbaro calls a political reporter on the campaign trail, bars of hold music, the operator at the congressional press room. (All of those details are real, though they can also be ersatz. “Could you just rustle the papers in silence for a minute?,” one producer asked Goldstein during her segment.)

Barbaro, too, leaves much of his own thought process on display. Generations of reporters have been trained to make themselves invisible in their stories, but Barbaro can end up becoming a character. In a memorable early episode, he was moved to tears and wept audibly, admitting the limitations of his own perspective, while interviewing a Kentucky coal miner who was in favor of reviving the mining industry. These moments make good listening and endear Barbaro to fans — one I spoke with cited his “tenderness” in particular as a selling point — but journalists have been warier of them. On Slate, Susan Matthews called the episode “irresponsible to the point of bordering on unethical.”

This move away from the voice-of-God newsman represents a change for the paper and a change for Barbaro, for whom Times traditions have always been sacrosanct. (Douthat, who worked with Barbaro on both the high-school newspaper and an anonymous competitor they invented called La Vérité, recalled that Barbaro insisted La Vérité’s layout follow the Times’ exactly.) The son of a firefighter and an elementary-school librarian, Barbaro grew up just outside New Haven, where he and his sister had a paper route for the Register, and after high school at Hamden Hall, a local prep school, he arrived at Yale, where he rose to become the editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News. Even then, he had the kind of concerted ambition that propels one inexorably forward.

After college, Barbaro spent a few years at the Washington Post before joining the Times. He distinguished himself on his first beat, retail, before moving up to a sexier one, covering the Bloomberg administration as a city-hall reporter. From there, it was on to the 2012 and 2016 campaign trails, covering Romney in the former, a succession of GOP candidates in the latter, and finally Donald Trump, earning the none-too-exclusive honor of the future president’s scorn. (“He should resign,” Trump tweeted.) When Trump was elected, Barbaro’s was one of two names atop the Times’ A1 story announcing it to the world.

Privately, Barbaro was shaken by the outcome of the election, which he, like many at the Times, had not anticipated. “I was humbled by the experience of having covered that race as a national political correspondent and written these very authoritative, sweeping stories about the race and then realizing that my understanding of the race was insufficient and was not correct,” he says. In the aftermath, newly unmoored, he had to find a new place for himself and considered becoming an editor or even getting involved with the Times’ live-events business. Instead, picking up the thread from a side project he’d been a part of during the campaigns, a slapdash Times politics podcast called The Run-Up, he became The Daily.

The Daily was not part of the Times’ original audio plan. Audio itself was, until very recently, not much of a consideration. A few desks had their own podcasts — The Book Review, Popcast — but they tended to operate as guerrilla endeavors. In 2016, Henig, who had worked on a variety of digital projects at the Times, was tasked with looking into audio opportunities in the wake of Serial’s wild success. “A lot of internal people were kind of like, ‘Yeah, we’ve, like, had this conversation before,’ ” she says. “ ‘And nothing’s going to happen here because that’s how it netted out the last few times.’ ”

Dolnick and Henig launched an international search to find a journalist to shore up and run the Times’ audio program, to answer the question, as the job posting had it, of what the New York Times should sound like.

They hired Tobin, who was then a young producer leading development for WBUR in Boston and had already worked on creating a successful Times audio series around the paper’s “Modern Love” column. She arrived at the company in summer 2016 with the high-minded idea of spending months making a narrative series — one that was eventually released as Caliphate, foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi’s account of her reporting on ISIS and the fall of Mosul. But the U.S. election was dominating the news, and Tobin, Dolnick, and Henig landed on a politics show with the reporters covering the campaign, a time-limited, end-stopped production that would serve as a learning experience as much as anything else.

The Run-Up, which launched in August 2016, featured Barbaro as well as guest hosts from the paper’s politics ranks. Barbaro wasn’t the only reporter considered — his colleague Nicholas Confessore had been another possibility — but he stood out early on. Watching tapes of the reporters doing the cable-TV rounds, Tobin was impressed by Barbaro’s humanity. “He seemed like a real person,” she says. When the election ultimately ended The Run-Up and Barbaro had his dark night of the soul about how to continue as a reporter, there was The Daily.

I ask Barbaro if there was an element of penance in his decision for having missed the Trump ascendancy along with much of the rest of the mainstream media. “My therapist just retired, so I can’t answer this,” he says. “You have to remember, we didn’t understand that The Daily was going to be this model of journalistic transparency. It’s kind of a soul-searching way of telling a story, where you embrace your confusion and you experience the quest for the answer.” In its way, it is the first news product generated by and for the Trump era, which demands constant, ever-evolving explanation while simultaneously undermining the concept of certainty around the news at all.

The Daily, which had narrowly missed being called First Up, started less than two weeks after Trump took the oath of office. BMW signed on as its launch sponsor, and repeat advertisers have included ZipRecruiter, Fidelity, Google, IBM, and Delta — which says something, given that much of podcast advertising still comes from direct-to-consumer businesses like mail-order mattresses and meal kits. Dolnick declined to discuss how lucrative The Daily is to the Times beyond saying it is profitable. A source told Vanity Fair last year that its ad revenue would end up in the low eight figures, though the Times will not confirm this amount.

But going by the rule of thumb for podcast advertising, which is sold on a CPM (cost per thousand, as in per thousand listeners) basis, The Daily looks very profitable. The average CPM for podcasts, several in the industry say, is between $25 and $35. Even putting The Daily on the low end of that (though surely it is not), a show with an average of 2 million listeners could make $50,000 per ad per episode, and each episode has multiple ad slots (though not all are always filled). Even at a rate of one ad per show, The Daily’s five shows per week would rake in $1 million a month or more, though one person familiar with the inner workings of says the total is significantly higher.

This back-of-the-envelope math doesn’t account for fees The Daily earns and stands to earn from the public-radio stations that have begun broadcasting it over the air.

How to apportion credit for the show’s success is a question that’s impossible to answer (everyone who’s ever had a hand in or near it would like their share). Behind the scenes, Tobin is widely admired in the industry; Dolnick calls her a “visionary.” On the show, Barbaro is a keen and time-tested interviewer, but the guest reporters actually bring the news. “People think they love Barbaro,” one podcast executive tells me. “But I think it could have been anyone else.” And yet, I ask one Daily superfan, does the show suffer when Barbaro is out and a guest host fills in? “Oh yeah,” she says. “What kind of question is that?”

At a time when every media company is racing to diversify its revenue streams, Tobin has created the single most successful Times product in a decade or more. The knock on the Times in the broader community is that it has built an infrastructure for a rich audio department that has not yet arrived, though the paper has used podcasting as a lure to get and keep key talent elsewhere in the newsroom. “I’m almost personally offended that they haven’t launched a ton of podcasts on the success of The Daily,” one outside producer tells me. The most reliable marketing for new shows is promotion on a successful podcast; with The Daily, the Times has the most valuable springboard in the business.

Tobin says she will begin to step back from the daily editing of the flagship show to focus on the expanding slate, but she remains closely, intimately, even unyieldingly involved. Existing podcasts soldier along (besides the Book Review show and the Popcast, there is the culture-focused Still Processing and an opinion-section talkie called The Argument). Some new ones have already been developed, and more are on the way. Tobin and her team have been launching smaller, more self-contained series, some of which have been met with fanfare. There is 1619, a series spun off from a print project on a pivotal year in the history of slavery by Times Magazine staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, and The Latest, an afternoon impeachment briefing that is a sister show to The Daily. (In the coming months, Dolnick says, he can envision a kids’ show, an afternoon show, a politics show.)

But none approach the reach of The Daily, which, for now, is carrying the rest of the audio department on its back. Even The Weekly, the TV show inspired by the success of The Daily, which began airing on FX and Hulu in 2019, can’t compete with it. While The Weekly contributed nearly $10 million to the Times’ bottom line in the third quarter of 2019, it has struggled to make the impact The Daily has, and FX chairman John Landgraf said this month that he is still considering whether to renew it.

So for the moment, The Daily stands alone. It has shifted the gravity of the paper and of the audio landscape, full stop. Podcasting now, one outside executive told me, bobs in the show’s wake. The Times ranks it alongside its top journalism; it submitted an episode of the show as part of its package of Me Too coverage, which shared the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2018. (In a sign of the times, the Pulitzer board announced it would be adding a separate audio-reporting prize this year.) Meanwhile, the audio team continues to grow; more than 10 people came onboard this month alone. “Everyone will end up working for The Daily,” Kimmie Regler, a producer at Gimlet Media, tells me. “We all will end up at The Daily.

*This article appears in the January 20, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Voice of the Podcast Generation