Interview recording with UM Communications Lecturer Tony Collings

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Aggregation of News

The first question I asked Mr. Collings dealt with the issue of original reporting versus news aggregation.

1:  So, on the topic of the future of quality journalism, how do you see the gathering and aggregation of news online affecting traditional newspaper sites like nytimes.com, that are known more for content creation, as opposed to aggregation, like what the Huffington Post does so well?

A:  So, we don’t know how this is going to work out, but we do know that the Huffington Post is a combination of original reporting and aggregation, whereas the nytimes is primarily original reporting. And, whether there’s enough room for both models or not, we just don’t know. Right now, the Huffington Post is very successful, and that aggregation model seems to be working. The nytimes is trying to find a way to survive in this new environment. They’ve just put up a paywall, and we’ll have to see whether they can generate enough income.

  • I think Mr. Collings is correct when he says that the aggregation model seems to be working. Enough consumers want their news delivered that way, and don’t care much for what source it comes from or how it is delivered to them. He’s also right in his observation that we really don’t know how this will play out. While most newspapers are struggling to earn a profit, especially online, they are just beginning to experiment with the idea that their content should be paid for, not simply aggregated everywhere across the internet.
  • Personally, I don’t think the Huffington Post model is as bad or as harmful as the model of a site like Newser.com. Like all aggregators, Newser pores over countless sources and links to the trending or important articles across the web. However, in addition to that, it uniquely reduces these stories down to two paragraphs, eliminating the need for most people to even click on the link to the original article.  This reduces the number of people visiting original creation sites, like nytimes.com, cutting back on advertising revenue, their main source of online revenue.  I have come to believe that this kind of work is very damaging to newspaper sites that continue to give away most, if not all, of their content away online, like the nytimes or the Washington Post.  Michael Wolff, the founder of Newser, believes strongly in the necessity of his company’s formula of using technology to provide a smarter news experience:


  •  The debate over aggregation unfolded in the public sphere recently between Arianna Huffington and Bill Keller, the managing editor of the nytimes.  Mr. Keller wrote an article for the nytimes Magazine, in which he argued that the future of serious journalism lies with traditional content creators like the nytimes, rather than with aggregators like the Huffington Post.  Arianna quickly responded with a viewpoint of her own, defending the work of the HuffPo, and claiming it does have significant full-time staff of original content creators.  Instead of this back-and-forth that gets us nowhere, I would rather see some collaboration between these two media giants with a common goal of preserving online hard-hitting, investigative journalism.
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Paywalls and Newspapers

These next couple of questions deal with online paywalls for news organizations and the future of newspapers.

2:  So, as you just talked about, the nytimes just instituted a paywall, limiting people to 20 free articles per month. In your view, will this plan work for the nytimes? Will it generate enough revenue for them, enough for them to call it a success?

A:  I don’t know. That’s the big question. They tried something similar a few years ago and it didn’t work. So whether they’ve found a better formula this time we don’t know. But a lot of doubts have been raised because so many people have gotten used to the idea of getting it for free. And I know that when I asked my students the other day, “Would you pay?”, they said “no.” They said “we’ll just go elsewhere.”

  • Mr. Collings acknowledges here what everyone at the nytimes knows deep down but wishes weren’t true: most of the top stories the nytimes reports are also reported on by very reputable – and free – news organizations, like BBC or the Washington Post.  If one of them puts up a paywall, people will do what’s convenient and cheap and go find their news elsewhere.
  • I also believe this to be true, but to an extent.  I believe all that the nytimes has to achieve for “success” is a small baseline number of viewers to commit to pay for the online content.  The majority of their online viewers are probably still going to be in the “free” category, but this new paywall is meant to draw money from their most steadfast and committed viewers and content sharers.  A week or two after this paywall went active in the U.S., I found myself out of “free page views” for the month already, and decided I would need to find a way to gain complete access.  So, I convinced my parents to subscribe to Sunday-only home delivery of the nytimes, thus granting me complete online access with this paid account.  If you are thinking about taking the plunge and paying for world-class quality reporting, you can look at the possible subscriptions here.
  • Early analysis of the nytimes.com paywall success has showed that it has caused a slight decrease in daily page views, but it is still too early to tell if it will sustain this consistency.  Below is a useful graphic on the page view differences:


3:  What about for more local or regional news sites that don’t have the numbers of online viewers the nytimes does? How are companies like the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press supposed to survive when charging online likely won’t work for them? Is relying on advertising revenue a sustainable plan for the future?

A:  In order for them to make money, they have to, obviously, have enough revenue from whatever source to cover their costs, and have some leftover for profit. The problem is, they’ve lost the traditional sources of revenue of subscription and advertising, to a large extent. They’ve definitely lost classified advertising. It’s all going to places like Craig’s List. And, the subscription revenue is down also because more people are going online, so they’re not getting the print newspaper. Again, we just don’t know whether they’re going to survive or not. Now, Detroit has two newspapers, two news organizations that have print and online versions. Whether a city in real trouble, like Detroit, can sustain two news organizations I don’t know. Somewhere down the line I can see one of them not surviving.

  • I agree with Mr. Collings’ assertion that because of decreasing subscription and advertising revenues, even large city newspapers are in danger.  I think his doubts on the sustainability of two heavy news organizations in one city are ones that are often ignored in the debate about the future of newspapers.  The efficiency of one paper and one online site is far greater than that of two.
  • My own view is that the Free Press and the News are obviously both struggling to make ends meet, and will at some point in the near future begin talks of merging or at least forming smaller and more unique areas of subscribers.  I think they are going to have to follow the way of the city and diminish in size or combine forces in a merger.  Besides, they usually cover the same top stories about Detroit.
  • An informative and extensive table from the Newspaper Association of America provides data on the historical and recent losses in classified advertising revenue for American newspapers.

4:  Do you think it might go – because my brother and his wife live in Chattanooga, TN, and he told me about, I don’t know how long ago, but there used to be two newspapers, the Chattanooga Times and the Chattanooga Free Press. I believe one was conservative and one was liberal, and recently they combined into one newspaper. So, that’s been working for them. Do you think that might work for Detroit?

A. It’s a possibility. I mean, obviously, when you merge, you lay off some of the staff, and that reduces costs. And it’s not as if the number of people working at these two news organizations are all going to keep their jobs. Definitely not, some are going to lose their jobs. The tricky thing is, if you lay off too many journalists, then you don’t have a good product to offer for in the way of news coverage. Especially, you know, in Detroit there’s been some terrific news coverage. The former mayor is no longer the mayor because of reporting by the Free Press. We definitely don’t want to lose that kind of quality, hard-hitting, public interest reporting. But, it’s tricky. To reduce costs by reducing staff by enough so that you can survive and yet not reduce too much so that the quality of the reporting goes down so much that people aren’t as interested in reading the stories.

  • I think his thoughts on the value and importance of hard-hitting, public-interest reporting get to the truth.  His career in media and reporting has taught him first hand that news outlets have to find the right balance between being a lean, low-cost organization and making the investments to be able to produce the stories that sustain subscribing audiences.
  • I am personally thankful for the vigor and integrity that the Detroit Free Press showed when it pursued the Kwame Kilpatrick corruption story.  Its complete and thorough investigation of this case rid the city of the Mayor and helped it begin a road to recovery and redemption that we are seeing unfold today.
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Local News Coverage

The following question deals with the difficulty of sustaining a local newspaper, specifically the Ann Arbor News.

5:  Do you think in Ann Arbor the quality has dropped, or they’ve cut costs too much, that we don’t have that hard-hitting journalism that goes after government officials or local corporations?

A:  Yes, I think the quality has gone down, we’ve lost that. It was a very strange situation. We have Ann Arbor, MI, which is a place where people are very interested in the news, well-educated, you’ve got the University, you’ve got other things in the city. The idea that you can’t have a daily newspaper in a city like Ann Arbor is very hard to believe for me. And that’s what we were told when the Ann Arbor News was folded. We were told, “No, we just could not sustain it.” So, the staff was laid off, and then some of them were hired back to AnnArbor.com at lower levels of compensation, and people were brought in who were complete ameteurs, inexperienced, naive in a lot of cases, and if you look at AnnArbor.com, some of what they run are basically press releases. Without any kind of skepticism or going deeper to find out what’s really behind it. So, yes, we’ve lost all of that.

  • Since I was raised in Ann Arbor, I grew up reading a daily print copy of the Ann Arbor News, and I totally agree with Mr. Collings’ amazement of the fact that this city was not able to sustain a daily print newspaper.  If a city of this caliber can’t keep one alive, who can?  Mr. Collings wrote a blog post for his Blog, Capturing The News, on the one-year anniversary of the demise of the Ann Arbor News.  In it, he calls the new form, AnnArbor.com, more of a “community bulletin board,” and I would say that is a very apt description of the role it serves in the city.
  • Even though AnnArbor.com retained some familiar faces from the Ann Arbor News, it certainly did not retain anywhere near the budget or staff of what the Ann Arbor News had.  I have noticed that the amount of their original content in their Thursday and Sunday print editions is nowhere near close to the amount of original reporting the Ann Arbor News had in each daily print edition.  Their print editions are also much more aggregation focused than what a normal full-time newspaper company would do.  It has entire sections that are drawn straight from the AP or the nytimes.  To me, this does not seem like a model that will work in an affluent city such as Ann Arbor because it does not motivate an Ann Arbor News subscriber to pay for a low-budget production of what they are used to.
  • Time Magazine penned an insightful piece in 2009 when Ann Arbor News was converted into an experiment known both online and off as AnnArbor.com.
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Wrap Up

These are the remaining two questions of the interview with Mr. Collings and, thankfully, it ends on a hopeful note.

6:  Where do you typically get your news from? TV, online, newspaper, print, radio?

A:  All of the above. Because it’s my job. I’m teaching Communication studies, so I need to know what’s being reported, so all day long I’m just going through everything.

  • Knowing his department at Michigan, I should have expected his answer that he goes through all of the media formats all day long.  Not owning a television of my own, I rely on the internet as the main source of my news and way to stay informed.  According to the State of the News Media 2011 report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, more Americans say that they get their news online rather than from print newspapers.  This 2011 report says this is the first time online has surpassed print newspapers.  A graphic from that report illustrates the recent rise of the online category and the long decline of the newspaper category:

7:  How can quality journalism survive?

A:  I don’t know, but one promising development has been that a number of news organizations have been partnering with non-profits. And there are non-profit investigative journalism organizations. For example, one’s called ProPublica. Another one’s called Center for Public Integrity. And they have partnered with NYTimes, NBC news, Washington Post, The Atlantic, all kinds of news organizations who couldn’t afford to do this reporting on their own, but by partnering with a non-profit, they can still do the reporting, high-quality reporting, investigative reporting of wrong-doing, exposes, and still be viable.

  • As for the timeless question of how quality journalism can survive in this digital, aggregated age, Mr. Collings offers up a couple organizations that provide some hope.  According to its website, ProPublica is “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.”  It was formed in 2007, and views itself as an important bulwark of quality reporting in this day and age where investigative reporting is at risk.  In fact, it was recently announced that two ProPublica reporters have been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for their stories on Wall Street bankers enriching themselves while worsening the financial crisis.  This was the second Pulitzer Prize awarded to ProPublica in the past two years.


  • The mission of the Center for Public Integrity is “to produce original investigative journalism about significant public issues to make institutional power more transparent and accountable.”  As the video above makes clear, the Center, much like ProPublica, serves an invaluable role in our changing society and digitized world to provide a check on institutions and the powerful.
  • In addition to these two important investigative news organizations, there are many other groups and coalitions today with similar missions of preserving quality journalism in the 21st century.  One such example is the Nieman Journalism Lab, which is a collaborative attempt at Harvard University to “figure out how quality journalism can survive and thrive in the Internet age.”  One particularly interesting post from the Nieman Lab from late 2010 was a discussion among a diverse group of media experts about whether or not the New York Times’ paywall model would work in 2011.  Most of the experts believed that the model would not work and  be phased out before the end of 2011.  Personally, I happen to believe that although it probably won’t take in a ton of revenue, it will last much longer than the Times’ previous attempt at a paywall, which only lasted for two years before being lifted.
  • Another organization that has existed since 1909, is the Society of Professional Journalists.  SPJ is a non-profit organization that seeks to maintain a high quality free press and informed citizenry.  In addition, the Poynter Institute is a school that teaches aspiring journalists and media leaders, and “stands for a journalism that informs citizens and enlightens public discourse.
  • I believe that non-profit partnerships with news organizations will play a critical role in ensuring that we have an informed citizenry that has access to investigative and hard-hitting exposes and reports.  We already seeing this with ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity.  But, I think this change will only be one part of a complicated transformation of the newspaper and journalism industry.  There will be many other changes in the media, some of which we have yet to figure out.  One of those crazy ideas for changing the media world, specifically increasing newspaper circulation, was the topic of a TED talk in 2009.  Jacek Utko believes that better design can improve print newspaper circulation by up to 100%, and possible save the newspaper.


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