In the wake of Serial’s success, Atlanta paper creates a true-crime podcast

Photo: AP

In a bit of what might be called fan nonfiction, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has rolled out a podcast modeled on Serial, the smash hit spin-off of This American Life in which Sarah Koenig investigated a murder conviction, sharing with her audience her reporting steps and her own uncertainties about the case.

The AJC’s Breakdown explores the case of Justin Chapman, a man convicted of murder in the small west Georgia town of Bremen—pronounced BREE-min, reporter Bill Rankin explains. (Necessary disclosure: Rankin and I are family friends and have known each other for many years.)

Beyond the copycat factor, there are a few things that stand out about Breakdown: First, Rankin, a 26-year veteran of the AJC, has no experience in radio. Second, the AJC has devoted a lot of time and money to the project, even though the managing editor admits it is an experiment. The strategy behind that resource commitment was in part to create extra value for subscribers, and in part to leverage something major metro papers still have in abundance: deep expertise. It’s an approach other newspapers should look at as a way to get into a new form of story-telling—one that could even help make money, maybe, someday.

One other notable thing: Though the series hasn’t concluded yet, based on the episodes that have been released to date, Breakdown has raised some serious questions about the prosecution’s case.

The idea behind the podcast began during a Thanksgiving road trip, when managing editor Bert Roughton’s son, a New York public defender, introduced him to Serial. Roughton immediately started wondering if Rankin, a veteran of more than 20 years on the courts beat, could do something similar at the AJC. When he approached Rankin’s editor, Richard Halicks, Roughton learned the reporter was already looking into the case involving Chapman, who had been convicted of killing his neighbor by burning down his own home.

Still, Roughton said, he was unsure how the project would work out when he first proposed it. “I think the only thing Bill Rankin had ever recorded was his voicemail, and his voicemail is not very impressive.”

But, Roughton said, he specifically wanted someone like Rankin to roll out the AJC’s first Serial-wannabe. The paper’s market research has shown subscribers value the expertise of the paper’s staff, he said.

“I wanted to showcase our specialness, the fact that Bill understands this stuff better than anybody else,” he said.

Rankin did have a pretty steep learning curve with the podcast, having never written a script, or read anything out loud, except to his children.

“You have to keep it conversational,” he explained. “I’d read something and realize, that’s how I’d write it, but that’s now how I’d say it.”

Because I have known Rankin so long, I enjoy just hearing him tell a story. So I asked a trusted source for an independent assessment. Brian Tannebaum is not only brutally honest at all times, he’s also the secretary of the Innocence Project of Florida.

His first thought: “I hate you. Now I have to go listen to the whole thing.”

After checking it out, Tannebaum was impressed.

“I thought it was well done,” he said. “It’s interesting, because reporters have a different perspective on cases. Journalists always come to it with the perspective of ‘I want to get the story right.’ Lawyers come at it with ‘I want to get my side right.’ He went into it wanting to get all the facts right.”

The AJC gave Rankin the time to go and get those facts. He was off his regular courts beat for six months while he researched the case and learned how to tell it as a podcast. The editors also brought on Susanna Capelouto, a news editor at CNN International and a veteran of Georgia Public Broadcasting, as a consultant. And they bought studio time for Rankin to record each episode, built a special webpage for the podcast, and had a staffer compose and record the music.

Roughton wouldn’t tell me exactly how much he spent on Breakdown—“I need to tell my bosses first,” he said. But he acknowledged that it was tens of thousands of dollars.

Why make that kind of investment? Roughton said the AJC has been trying to figure out ways to get paid subscribers to engage more deeply with the paper’s digital offerings. They are what he called “volatile”—some will check in for a week while they’re on vacation, or pop by and check out a few digital features and then never return. Each episode is available first to paid subscribers.

The AJC, like all of the Cox papers is preparing to transition from a hard paywall for premium content to a metered paywall. But the extras on the Breakdown page—maps, court documents, timelines, character sketches and videos, will still only be available to subscribers. (Five of the seven episodes have rolled out, with the fifth one behind a paywall until Thursday. The free episodes are here.)

Roughton wouldn’t share audience numbers with me, but said he has been happy with the traction the podcast has gotten. While the series has “done what we wanted it to do in the paid space,” he said, it’s gotten more traction in the “free space”—the moment when each episode is free to subscribers and non-subscribers alike.

“It so far has performed about the same as a pretty good piece of investigative work, one of those big Sunday pieces you roll out, as good or better,” he said. “It’s done really well in the iTunes store (where it’s free) and on Stitcher. That kind of surprised us. It’s great, but doesn’t help with our paid audience.”

But Roughton is also hoping that the investment will continue to pay off, with Breakdown’s audience growing over time through word of mouth, when the AJC plans to push it as road-trip listening during the Fourth of July weekend—and when the defendant gets a new trial, which he and Rankin expect to happen.

“It’s eminently reusable,” he said.

Plus, just doing the experiment gives the AJC the background and experience to do another one. Both Roughton and Rankin want to do another podcast, and the editor hopes his investment in it will be “amortized over time.”

“I think it’s a really interesting form of journalism,” Roughton said. “Magazines can do this kind of thing, but it’s really hard for newspapers.”

My take? More papers should try this. Many local publications have a reporter who knows about a case that could make a compelling audio narrative, rolled out over time. Serial showed there’s an appetite for stories in which journalists explain their investigative efforts—as Rankin does compellingly in Episode 3. And with podcasts reportedly saving NPR’s bottom line, why can’t they also help newspapers?

“I think it’s really important, in the environment we’re operating in, to learn some new tricks,” Roughton said.

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.