A New Newsletter/Podcast Launches in Portland, Joining a Crowded Field
Ask David Plotz—the former editor-in-chief of Slate, still host of its flagship Political Gabfest podcast, and onetime CEO of Atlas Obscura—how it came to be that Portland made the list of cities where his latest media venture, City Cast, is setting up shop and he’ll tell you in so many words that it’s because of our penchant for navel-gazing.
In other words: Portlanders like to talk (or complain) about ourselves, each other, and our city, not necessarily in that order. The stats show that many of us are podcast listeners already—so why not put the two together?
“If we succeed, we are only increasing people’s enthusiasm and interest in what is happening in their city,” he says. “We want to take the time away from people doomscrolling on Twitter, or getting nothing lasting out of TikTok.”
City Cast, which is owned by the Graham Holdings Company—the same Grahams that once owned the Washington Post in the pre-Jeff Bezos age—is already up and running with its combo newsletter/podcast model in nine other cities, including Chicago, Denver, Houston, Salt Lake, and Boise.
It is just one of a handful of new media entities preparing to take aim at the Portland market via our inboxes. Axios Local, a spin-off of the short-format, scoop-heavy, DC-born newsletter company, is hiring in Portland. 6amCity, a Greenville, South Carolina–based start-up, launched its daily Portland newsletter in summer 2022. These efforts join more established ones, like the aggregated news and event listings covered in Bridgeliner’s newsletters. Traditional media outlets are all in on the newsletter game, too, from the Oregonian to Willamette Week to OPB. (Speaking of which, have you signed up for Portland Monthly’s newsletters yet?)
What sets City Cast apart from the herd, perhaps, is its podcast, which has yet to launch, though the newsletter had its start this week. Plotz says he is hoping that the podcast will go live by the end of the month, or Thanksgiving at the latest; Edward R. Murrow Award–winning journalist Claudia Meza, formerly of Oregon Public Broadcasting, is in place as the host, along with audio producer/journalist Giulia Fiaoni.
They are, however, still looking for a lead producer. Journalist Emily Harris, a former Think Out Loud host and NPR bureau chief in Jerusalem, was in that role before she and the company recently parted ways. (“We think really highly of her. She’s a great journalist. We wish her well,” says Plotz, and that’s all he will say about that, on or off the record. Harris could not immediately be reached for comment.)
They’ve also got a high-profile hire in Rachel Monahan, a longtime Willamette Week journalist who is now overseeing the City Cast newsletter for Portland.
“I've been reporting on Portland for over six years,” she says. “It's something I love and enjoy doing. I get to continue helping people understand and engage with the city they live in. And I get to do it in a sustainable work environment that's letting us create our own voice. And no one is doing what we're doing.”
Podcasts, of course, have wormed their way into many of our media diets, particularly in the past 10 years or so—enough that there’s been chatter lately about whether the market is oversaturated. (New York magazine’s podcasting columnist recently took pointed note of how long it has been since the last watercooler blockbuster of a podcast. Would Adnan Syed have been freed from jail if Serial had launched last year instead of in 2014?)
Plotz concedes the point, but says that at least when it comes to local news, there’s a decent-size hole in the podcast market. Think The Daily, but on a local level; one big story, contextualized in 20 or 30 minutes by an invited guest—maybe the reporter who put it together or the people who shaped it, plus a grab-bag of other local headlines. There will be some original reporting, but the value-add is also on the curation and the analysis intended to put the day’s events into perspective. One goal, says Plotz, is to “amplify” journalism that being done at other outlets, to help give it even more of a platform.
What City Cast doesn’t have, at least not yet, is a website with staff-generated stories. Plotz says that’s in the works, companywide. But Andrew DeVigal, the chair of journalism innovation and civic engagement at the University of Oregon’s school of journalism and communication, says it can be difficult to drive people to a new website. Newsletters and podcasts meet us where we are, DeVigal says—which is to say, on our phones. They’re also a good match, he says—promoting a podcast within your newsletter means potential new listeners are just a click away.
It's not as though the new podcast will have the field to itself, however. OPB’s Think Out Loud is a well-established daily, hour-long current events and civic life–focused radio show that gets repackaged for podcast listening; it’s most likely the closest match to what they’re trying to do, though City Cast will be less of an overall time commitment. (You can also listen to TOL in segments.)
Other legacy local news entries typically post new episodes weekly instead of daily: the Oregonian has Beat Check, which highlights Sunday A-1 type investigations, long-reads, and kitchen table talkers; Willamette Week’s The Dive goes deep on the alt-weekly’s cover story of the moment; and local TV is in the podcasting game, too.
Still, getting truly embedded in a local news ecosystem takes time and money, and plenty have tried and failed in the past. (RIP, GoLocalPDX.)
“What makes the difference is how much money you can spend out of the gate to launch and build the audience in different cities,” says Ben DeJarnette, who was the founding editor of local newsletter Bridgeliner, and is now the communications director for LION, or Local Independent Online News publishers. Build enough of an audience across enough cities, and you can start going after the national advertising accounts that love to underwrite podcasts, from Casper Mattresses to Hello Fresh.
“A particular segment of the Portland news audience is already very well served, and City Cast is going after that segment—people who speak English, the young, professional crowd with disposable income,” adds DeJarnette, who counts himself as part of that demographic, and plans to be a City Cast listener and reader. “I think everyone who enters a city hopes that they are reaching new audiences, making the pie bigger. I suspect that that is easier said than done.”
But he’s also naturally biased, he says, toward local news publications that are also locally owned, and will reinvest profits in their communities.
Plotz, though, isn’t fazed by skepticism about yet another entry in a crowded media market, or concerned about cannibalizing audiences.
“We want to be the person who loves the city more than anyone else,” he says. “A podcast is a mediocre informational medium (unlike, say, newsletters), but it’s fantastic for emotional connection.”