On November 20th 2008, nearly 100 participants from several regions of the United States and from Denmark, Norway and Ireland as well attended a one-day conference at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism
focused on the pressing topic: “Consumer Revolution on the Web: Opportunities and Dangers for Journalism.” Co-sponsored by Columbia Journalism Review and Consumer Reports, the gathering featured a lineup of distinguished experts and journalists from mainstream media and online media who presented their views and experineces in various forms. These included case studies, panel discussions and a keynote address. Senior staff from Columbia Journalism Review and Consumer Reports served as moderators and helped advance the dialogue between the speakers and the attendees.

The conference was designed to address questions about how professional journalists should cover consumer issues at a time when big-name bloggers, online vigilantes, and anonymous user-reviewers have turned word-of-mouth into a powerful weapon and traditional consumer reporters are falling victim to budget cuts. Questions included: how are peer-to-peer opinion leaders using their influence? How should journalists cover them-or even work with them to effect change? And what is the future of consumer reporting in areas such as business, healthcare, economics, politics and law?

The conference was the first, as far as conference organizers could determine, to bring together many of the key players to address the impact of the “consumer revolution” on consumer reporting. Speakers from Consumer’s Union, The New York Times, USA Today.com, NPR, CNN, WNYC radio, the Center for Media and Democracy, the Media Bloggers Association, Consumerist.org and a number of other pioneering consumer Web sites
addressed the conference.

Welcome and Introduction

Nicholas Lemann, Dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, opened the conference by saying that it was an “attempt to grapple” with issues in consumer journalism. He called the Web a “liberating and disruptive
technology,” that was helping to change the traditional roles of professional opinion versus the so-called “wisdom of the crowd.” There is now an unfortunate distrust of the former, and of journalists generally, he said. Although the public should not be “starry-eyed” about professional consumer criticism, the “many-to-many model” and “open mic operation” of social media does not suffice either. “[Journalists] are still in the business of ordering the world for people,” he said. Lemann then introduced Jim Guest, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Consumers Union.

Guest explained that Consumer Union’s mission has three parts: testing products and evaluating services; getting that information to the public; and advocating for consumer protection in Washington, D.C. and, “increasingly,” state houses around the country. He said that “systemic change” is the goal and pointed to accomplishments that Consumers Union has made relating to cigarettes, car seats, seatbelts, and SUV rollover standards.

Given the changes in consumer reporting and information, Consumers Union is currently facing two challenges, Guest continued. The first is finding the right business model: he said it was “shrewd judgment or good luck” that led Consumer Reports to charge for online subscriptions, an approach that has not worked well for many traditional media outlets. The second is concern about moving away from testing in order to beef up information distribution via podcasting, mobile devices, and the Web. Consumers Union is striving for a “more interactive” relationship with consumers. It has mobilized a network of 700,000 “e-activists” around the country. Consumer Union’s stature gives it a competitive advantage: its annual questionnaire is likely the second largest survey in the country next to the United States Census, Guest said.

Keynote Speech: A Reviewer Reviews the Users

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.