The Los Angeles Times has a long history of telling the true stories of sunny Southern California’s darker side. In the fall of 2016, we had a surprise breakout hit — pageviews, subscriptions, critical acclaim — with a modern tale of real-life Orange County noir “Framed,” Christopher Goffard’s six-part print series.
At its essence, Framed was a story about striving, revenge, and ruin in Irvine, California, a wealthy suburb 40 miles south of downtown Los Angeles.
“Framed” was steeped in Goffard’s affinity for the suspense dramas of the Golden Age of radio. But even with its success, we recognised a missed opportunity: It would’ve made a great podcast.
In late 2016, following a tip from Daily Pilot Reporter Hannah Fry, Goffard began reporting on another crime story: the stabbing death of “Dirty John” Meehan. A few months later, Goffard turned in a single story, and Davan Maharaj, Los Angeles Times’ then-editor-in-chief and publisher, proposed turning it into a six-part serial, like “Framed,” but with a podcast.
That’s how the Los Angeles Times went on to produce “Dirty John,” a true-crime podcast that captivated millions of listeners with its story of love, deceit, denial, and, ultimately, survival.
Goffard is regarded as one of the best narrative journalists working today, but he had never done a podcast. We enlisted Wondery, a podcast production and distribution company, to partner on the project.
Working with editors and multi-media journalists at the Los Angeles Times and a veteran radio producer at Wondery, Goffard began gathering audio interviews and mapping out the chapters of “Dirty John.” He wrote 50,000 words of scripts — about five hours worth of audio. Then he got behind the mic, and the podcast was completed in just over three months. While the podcast was being produced, he wrote the accompanying print stories.
In collaboration with Wondery, we calendared a launch date a few months out and took the opportunity to leverage our strengths across editorial, marketing, PR, sales, and events to produce and promote what we believed would be one of the most successful narrative series of 2017.
In mid-September 2017, Los Angeles Times CEO Ross Levinsohn challenged the team to scale up all aspects of the launch and treat “Dirty John” like a movie opening. Under the direction of Mark Campbell, senior vice president of marketing at Los Angeles Times’ parent company tronc, a two-week print and digital teaser campaign gradually revealed more and more about the project, while counting down to the launch date.
The series rolled out in the Los Angeles Times and on Apple Podcasts and other platforms over the first week of October. To drive newsletter subscriptions, we invited readers to sign up for the Essential California newsletter to be notified when each episode was released.
During launch week, more than 20,000 new users signed up. Funneling “Dirty John” readers and listeners to Essential California had the halo effect of exposing new users to Times journalism beyond “Dirty John.” More than 70% have remained subscribed to the newsletter.
Overall, the podcast has garnered 17.2 million listens and more than 3.8 million pageviews, with those numbers continuing to grow. The Los Angeles Times and Wondery worked together to bring HBO, Casper, Zip-Recruiter, and others on as podcast sponsors.
As a culmination of the collaborative effort behind the project, a team including me and Suzy Jack, Los Angeles Times vice president of public affairs and events, led production of a “Dirty John Live” event, featuring many subjects of the story and previously unheard and unseen materials. The event connected 1,000 “Dirty John” fans to the complicated issue of domestic abuse at the heart of the story, highlighting methods for prevention and recovery.
“Dirty John” represented an important accomplishment for the Los Angeles Times. Beyond an exemplary piece of journalism backed by strong reporting, “Dirty John” gave the company a model for cross-functional collaboration, bringing resources and expertise from across the company together to drive collective value.