Turning back to the panel, McKean posed a question to Trudy Lieberman, who is a consumer affairs and health reporter and author of the CJR article, “How the Press Fueled the Birth and the Decline of the Consumer Movement.”
McKean asked about the “heyday” of that movement forty years ago. Addressing the decline instead, Lieberman said that, “The business community killed the Consumer Movement.” She advised that as journalists think about the changes happening in consumer reporting, they think about “our economic system and what is allowed in it.” She said that the decline of the Consumer Movement was a “graphic” demonstration that with the business community, “you can only go so far in reporting on serious malfunctions in the system.” In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the business community “said ‘enough,’” and began to organize against groups like the Michigan Consumers’ Council. When those folded, consumers lost protections being enacted at the state level.

Right now, we are trying to figure out how far the mix of professional and crowd reporting can go, Lieberman said, and we should think about the “tension between education and regulation” that exist on the Internet. The
business community wants to simply educate consumers to be “better buyers,” according to Lieberman, who thinks that that is not enough and that the system needs more regulation and oversight of business. “We gone from a Consumer Movement to Consumerism,” Lieberman said. She defined Consumerism as the art and act of buying, but also as a celebration of shopping and the belief that it will fix economic problems. Yet now the marketplace is even more complex, from personal electronics, to credit instruments, to “hidden stuff” in our foods. “We need a Consumer Movement more than ever right now,” Lieberman said, adding that the challenge will be “finding a home for this movement on the Internet” and moving away from the “herd mentality” of user reviews. She disagrees, to some extent, with the “wisdom of the crowds” and is a “Consumer Reports person at heart” who believes in the value of expert opinion, especially when it comes to things like healthcare. She thinks we need to translate the long-form journalism of traditional media to the Web in a way that will replace some of the “constraints on business” lost to deregulation.

McKean then introduced Bob Garfield, a columnist for Ad Age magazine, host of National Public Radio’s On the Media, and creator of Comcast Must Die, a Web site devoted to letting customers “vent their grievances” against the company. Garfield then told the story of how he’d been receiving “horrendous,” yet “run-of-the-mill” service from Comcast, so he decided to write about it at work under the headline, “Comcast Must Die.” “Nobody read my AdAge blog until that day,” Garfield said. He had so much feedback that he decided to create a Web site under the same name. “Evidently, I touched a nerve,” he said. Now, a year later, he is “amazed” that the site has been able to hold Comcast’s attention and generate positive change. Garfield says that he now has “the most delicious cable service in the United States of America.” Yet the more Comcast has tried to appease him - the more it has tried to “smear grease on the squeaky wheel” - the angrier he has became. Garfield pointed to BuzzMachine’s Jeff Jarvis, who was sitting in the audience, and credited him founding that approach with a blog post on his site titled, “Dell Sucks.”

McKean then turned to David Cay Johnston, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and author of the article in CJR’s package on consumer reporting entitled, “The New Consumer Vigilantes and Why They Matter.” With the rise of amateur reporting, McKean asked, “What’s going to happen to investigative reporting - the muckraking journalism of the 20th Century?” Johnston immediately replied that he thinks there is more investigative reporting now than there was four years ago, even at small and medium-sized papers. “Clearly the financial model of newspapers is being destroyed by the Internet,” he said, “but readership has been rising tremendously.” And people are very well informed these days, but it’s true that “there is unbelievable pressure” on news organizations. To compete in the market, they need to do a better job of “telling people that which they do not know” and “stop listening to company PR people.” In particular, he said information that is useful to small businesses is rare, and that newspapers tend to ignore small, but important, stories like the excessive surcharges that banks are imposing on debit-card holders. McKean chimed in to say that he’s noticed that “power follows the money” and considerations for advertisers, one of the only revenue sources available on the Web, can outweigh editorial decisions.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.