McKean then introduced Ben Popken, the editor of Consumerist, a citizen-journalist Web site covering a wide variety of consumer issues, products, and services. McKean noted that Consumerist, which is only two-and-a-half years old, gets roughly 15 million page views a month whereas Consumer Reports’ Web site gets only 5 million. But he wanted to know if independent sites and blogs such as Popken’s follow a code of ethics and do
“actual reporting.” Popken said that Consumerist offers “a panoply of information,” from breaking stories, to tips and insider confessions from company employees. It publishes 18-24 stories per day, 95 percent of which originate from reader tips. One of the most successful user-generated stories was one about “shrinking” products at grocery stores. Readers sent in before-and-after pictures from supermarkets around the country as companies downsized their wares. As popular as Consumerist has been, however, Popken noted that the site is for sale. “It’s hard to survive on an advertising revenue model,” he said, because Consumerist doesn’t “pull any punches” in its reviews.

McKean turned next to Harry McCracken, a former editor at PC World magazine and now the founder and editor of Technologizer, a new Web site and community about personal technology. McKean asked why McCracken had made the shift from “old to new media,” and if new media could fill the shoes of the old. McCracken responded that he disliked being an editor at PC World because it did not allow him to think, report, and write. What he likes about online publishing is that he can do all of that and didn’t need a lot of start up capital, a large staff, a circulation desk, or administrators. “I deeply believe that the Web is an equal-opportunity newsstand,” he said, “and if your content is compelling people will find it and you’ll do well. And if it’s not compelling, nobody is going to read it whether you’re a big company or an individual.”

The conversation then opened up among the panelists with McKean, following up on McCracken’s point, asking whether or not good journalism would always rise to a place of prominence on the Web. The panelists agreed that that would depend on whether or not traditional news outlets find a sustainable business model for online publication. Johnston and McCracken were optimistic, but Garfield said the model would “never” come. There was some discussion of micro financing a partial, but perhaps inadequate, solution.

McKean opened the floor to questions. Bill Sobel of SobelMedia, a digital media connections company, told Garfield a story about how he’d met a Comcast executive at a urinal and complained of his parents’ poor service. The next day a truck arrived at his parents’ home to fix the problem. Garfield replied that his site, Comcast Must Die, is “a string of 40,000 urinals,” on the Web. Then Jeff Jarvis stood up to ask McKean if he and Consumer Reports considered Popken and Consumerist to be their competition. McKean replied that by sheer size, Consumer Reports was a much bigger operation, with 100 journalists and 150 product testers. Ultimately, though, the two publications are operating on different business models. The decision in 1997 to make Consumer Reports’ Web site pay-only was “gutsy to say the least,” McKean said, “but it as turned out to be phenomenally correct.” Since then, Consumer Reports’ site has grown to 3.2 million subscribers. “The pay model is actually viable,” McKean said.

Before concluding, the panel turned to brands. Some thought they were “obsolete,” but others argued that only their nature had changed; in particular, it is now possible to build and/or destroy a brand much more rapidly than in the past. The conclusion of the conversation seemed to be that there is room for professional and amateur consumer reporting in some areas to exist symbiotically (with certain exceptions in critical markets like healthcare).

Case Studies 1 & 2

Gayle Williams, an associate editor at Consumer Reports, took the stage next to introduce two speakers to present case studies. The first was Steve Rubel, vice president at Edelman and author of the PR industry blog, MicroPersuasion, who laid out six trends in the blogosphere:

1) “The Cut-and-Paste Web,” by which consumers demand access to information anytime, anywhere via mobile devices. “If you don’t go where they are,” Rubel said, “you’ll never be relevant in their lives.”

2) “The Attention Crash,” by which individuals now have access to far more information than they are capable of processing.

3) “Digital Curation,” by which there is a growing role and need for information “curators” online that can find, sort, and display, as Rubel put it, “what’s art and what’s junk.”

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