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Could ’48 Hours’ Be The New ‘Serial’?

Fans of “48 Hours” have long sampled the program by watching TV, but for the past two weeks, they might have tried a new means of access: a podcast.

A free, downloadable five-part podcast from the CBS News program has told the story of Hannah Graham, a college student who went missing in Charlottesville, VA in 2014. The season premiere of “48 Hours” will tell the same story this Saturday over the course of a two-hour program. The investigation into her death generated national attention and led police to other cases of unsolved attacks against young women that took place over the span of a decade.

Is “48 Hours” pondering a gambit to take on “Serial,” the Peabody Award-winning podcast series from the creators of the radio program “This American Life”? Susan Zirinsky, the senior executive producer of the CBS newsmagazine, is not averse to the idea.

“Even though you have a core brand that is established, appreciated, you have to look for the ability to grow it, expand it, keep it relevant,” she said in an interview this week. The podcast was written and anchored by Neal Augenstein, a reporter for Washington D.C. news-radio outlet WTOP, who covered the case when it rose to national prominence. CBS News made the audio story available via Play.it, a CBS property that streams video and audio.

Many TV-news outlets are tapping into new forms of technology to keep viewers interested. ABC News recently unveiled a video report told using virtual-reality technology, letting viewers using mobile devices and other technology see a scene from Damascus in three-dimensional 360-degree views. CNN has been exploring the use of airborne drones for reporting purposes. NBC News has invested in Now This News, a provider of short-form video for mobile outlets. And CBS News late last year launched a streaming-video newscast called CBSN.

There’s good reason to master new formats. According to a review of comScore data by Pew Research Center’s 2015 examinaion of U.S. news media, 39 of the top 50 digital news websites had more traffic to their sites and associated applications coming from mobile devices at the start of 2015 than from desktop computers. And why should the traditional news players let upstarts trump them at their own game?

The podcasts “bring an audience to a level of understanding that’s really rich, and it’s something I’m going to try in the future, if there’s a business model I can make work,” said Zirinsky. She acknowledged that producing regular podcasts could create a need for more staff, but also noted her team often produces video CBS web properties.

To launch the current effort, CBS News paired a “48 Hours” producer with Augenstein, who had met some CBS operatives while covering the trial of Jesse Matthew, Jr, the last person to see Graham alive. Augenstein also appears on Saturday night’s broadcast, with some of his knowledge and social-media activity used to frame the story. Producers approached him with the idea for the podcast. After taking a listen to “Serial,” Augenstein said, he decided to move ahead with the project.

CBS News held him to a high level of fact-checking for the project, Augenstein said, noting the pace of the audio broadcast was very different in terms of pacing from his radio-news job, where breaking news is of more importance than telling a longer tale with nuance and added perspective.

Zirinsky said she is eager to produce more content for new media venues. “If I can make it work, it’s something we should aim to do as a regular thing,” she said. “We have a responsibility as journalists to talk to people in different places.”

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