Consumer Revolution on the Web: Overview

A comprehensive overview of CJR's recent consumer reporting conference

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, NPR, CNN, WNYC radio, the Center for Media and Democracy, the Media Bloggers Association, 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

New York Times technology columnist David Pogue, an Emmy Award-winning correspondent for CBS News’s Sunday Morning, delivered the conference’s keynote speech, “A Professional Reviewer Reviews the Users.” Pogue began by explaining that the biggest advantage of the Web over traditional media is not the expanded user feedback, but rather that users themselves are beginning to be the source of content. He cited a number of popular social networking and user-generated information Web sites, many of which had sold shortly after their creation for extravagant sums. These included giants like Facebook, YouTube, Prosper, Kiva, GoLoco, E-Petitions, and Who is Sick? It’s almost illogical, Pogue said, when referring to Wikipedia, that a user-edited encyclopedia should be so accurate: “It just doesn’t seem like it should work, does it?” he mused. But, of course, it does, he asserted. Pogue said that, according to Technorati, seventy-five blogs are created every minute. Although most of them are probably never used after their creation, he said, “This is the new status quo; it is expected you will have a voice on the Web.”

There has been institutional resistance among traditional media outlets toward using the full potential of the Web, Pogue said. His early efforts at Web reporting for The New York Times were an example of that resistance.
Editors were reluctant to invest in videos, graphics and blogs; there was poor interactivity and Pogue received very little feedback on his work. The paper’s mentality was that such efforts did not sell ads and generate
revenue, but Pogue argued that they would “improve the brand.” Then the Times “opened it up … and everything changed.” The Times added a comments section under blog posts, for example, and Pogue received 1,335 comments over the first weekend.

Citing the value of “instant feedback,” Pogue then returned to his main point about user-generated reviews, showing a slide of stampeding buffalo that drew laughs from the crowd. He then listed a number of Web sites that
review everything from consumer electronics, to doctors, to cars, to boyfriends. One of the best, he said, is the Internet Movie Database (, which includes user reviews of movies. This is where the illogical becomes logical. Even if there are a few “jerks” and bad reviews, they will be marginalized by the thousands of reviewers chiming in. “The cumulative wisdom will steer you in the right direction,” Pogue said. Yet there are still poorly managed comment and review sites, he added, citing YouTube as one example. But the advantages of social media are clear. Even in the case of fake reviews and businesses trying to “game the system” for their own benefit, Pogue said, “the real stuff greatly overwhelms the bogus stuff.” And innovations that address these problems keep coming, Pogue explained. TripAdvisor, for example, is a Web site where “you can search and
sort not just for how good a hotel is, but for how good it is for your kind of person.” Pogue also cited, where consumers are not only able to search for the cheapest products, but for the cheapest products from reliable vendors. “There are technological solutions to a lot of this stuff,” he said.

None of this, however, means that professional reviewers are obsolete, Pogue cautioned. One of the advantages of full time critics is that consumers can get to “know his tastes,” he said, adding that he and his wife “steer their
ship” by a New York Times film critic whom they think is reliably wrong about children’s movies. When it comes to the relationship between professional and amateur consumer reporters, Pogue said, there has not been
as much displacement as most people think. Most user reviews are simply “add-on,” he said. Plus, he added, there are inherent problems with user reviews, which tend to be self-selecting for people who have had particularly bad experiences with a product or service. This is known as the “Squeaky Wheel Syndrome.” And no matter how hard we try, there will always be some gaming of the system, Pogue warned, citing Microsoft’s practice of sending laptops to reviewers and asking them to “dispose of them as they saw fit” when finished. Of course, most kept them, so the practice amounted to a form of payola. It is also easy to disseminate false, but incredibly damaging, rumors about products and services anonymously on the Web.

Pogue closed by calling for the development of a “Code of Ethics” among user review Web sites: take responsibility for words and comments you allow; when you believe that someone is unfairly attacking another, take action; and do not allow anonymous comments. Pogue noted that this has worked at many Web sites and that, employing another technological innovation, some sites now allow reviewers to review each other and the quality of comments, so that only the best rise to the top of the page.

Panel Discussion: Are Consumers the Right Watchdogs?

After Pogue finished, Kevin McKean, the vice president and editorial director of Consumer Reports, took the stage to moderate a five-person panel discussion on the question, “Are Consumers the Right Watchdogs?” McKean
started by noting that the “financial collapse” has made consumer reporting and protection issues “even more timely.” He then introduced Mike Hoyt, the executive editor of Columbia Journalism Review, who outlined a three-part package in the September/October 2008 issue of the magazine called “The Rise and Fall - and Rise - of Consumer Journalism.” The authors of the three articles - Evan Cornog, David Cay Johnston and Trudy Lieberman — all took part in the conference. (The articles can be found at )

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.

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.”

4) “The Numerati,” by which traditional media, entrepreneurs, and PR companies can “mine” the Web for data and use analytical tools to more effectively build “media properties.” Data on reader and audience interests is underutilized, Rubel said. But whether or not using such information results in “a better editorial product is a very big debate.”

5) “Collaboration,” by which the “Web is not just a platform for communication, but for action; it’s a place where stuff gets done.” There are many levels of engagement with audiences: from open to controlled, from
communicative to collaborative.

6) “Hacker Journalists,” by which there has been a rise of programmers in the newsroom who are familiar with Web site management and digital media operations. They are “cross-trained in programming and journalism,” Rubel
said and are well worth hiring.

Diane Farsetta, senior researcher at The Center for Media and Democracy’s and producer of their “No Fake News” campaign, delivered the next case study on “exposing the spin” online. The Web’s first problem is
anonymity, Farsetta said, because “it makes it easier to misrepresent your identity.” She then listed a number of seemingly independent Web sites that were, in fact, created by business groups with a vested interest in swaying
consumer opinion. These included,,, and The Center for Consumer Freedom.

Though not necessarily involved in those sites, companies ranging from Burger King, to Sony, to Wal-Mart have misrepresented themselves online. The Web also connects marketers to bloggers, Farsetta continued., for examples, pays bloggers to place reviews on various Web sites. These are similar to Video News Releases (also known as VNRs) put out by PR firms, which some broadcast outlets misrepresent as original, unbiased reporting. If such practices are going to become more common, Farsetta argued, they should be clearly labeled as “sponsored reviews” or pre-packaged news.

Some companies, such as Ford, Dove, Kraft, Crystal Lite, and ConAgra, have created their own online communities, which offer product tips, finders, and a lot of publicity information. But if you read their privacy policies, Farsetta said, you will see that the companies are collecting and sharing your personal information as you participate in their communities. Even the United States Department of Defense’s regional command centers have hired journalists and created their own “news” sites. “There is a lot of blurring of roles,” Farsetta said, “a lot of uncharted territory, and a lot of vested interests taking advantage of that grey area.” Reporters, she concluded,
must work to raise “online media literacy.”

Panel Discussion: The New Age of Citizen Journalism

After a brief lunch break, the conference resumed with a panel moderated by CJR publisher Evan Cornog titled, “The New Age of Citizen Journalism: ‘Can’t We All Just Get Along?’” The two-member panel included Jeff Jarvis, a media and news blogger for the Web site BuzzMachine and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York, and John Darton, who worked as a reporter, editor and foreign correspondent for The New York Times for over forty years. Cornog asked each man to “lay out the case for the other side,” with Jarvis touting traditional media and Darnton digital media.

Jarvis began by saying that “old media has to update itself… but the point of that is to carry over the value of journalism” to new media. Likewise, Darnton said he had learned a lot, especially during the presidential campaign, about new media. Both men agreed that each operation has its place. Darnton said that traditional media is like a “spine” and new media “fills” in the gaps. “We’re in a good position now,” he said. “What I worry about is the future and the possibility we’ll go online only.” Both agreed that the term “citizen journalist” isn’t a good one because journalism and information should be judged upon their own merits and not upon job titles.

Cornog asked if the professional news media are “under attack” and mistrusted. Jarvis replied that stories are becoming “more of a process” rather than a one-time, one-way explanation. Jarvis cited the example of Gawker Media founder Nick Denton, who pioneered the act of publishing “half-baked posts” in which reporters lay out what they know and what they don’t, and then ask readers to contribute their own intelligence. That approach can be very useful in consumer reporting, he said, citing the example of The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC Radio, which mobilized its audience to report back on the price of food items around New York City. The input from listeners created a valuable database. Out of such mobilization “come new efficiencies and new business structures,” Jarvis said.

Darnton agreed with Cornog that, “Somewhere journalism got a bad name.” The first indication that amateur reporters were picking up the slack for professional news, in his opinion, was the Rodney King beating in 1991.
Newspapers need to find a business model for such Web reporting that will allow them to stay current, Darnton said. He cited and as good examples of traditional journalism start-ups on the
Web, but cautioned that their business models “aren’t replicable everywhere,” and that those operations are still very limited. Jarvis chimed in to add ProPublica to the list of start-ups doing traditional journalism on the Web.

Jarvis said that at a recent event at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, students looked for a news business model for online reporting. One of the unique positions that they came up with was that of “community manager,” a
person whose fulltime job would be to integrate citizen reporting into the site. He said that traditional media outlets should be more willing to experiment and share the results of those experiments. “There is no time to lose,” he said. Jarvis added that he is confident that there is still market demand for professional, investigative reporting, but that the journalism industry is still transforming into an undetermined size, scale, and shape. There will probably be a smaller core of journalists at the center, and news outlets will be more collaborative. He also noted that startup outlets “won’t be able to access big amounts of capital anymore. Darnton agreed, saying that advertising revenue is “particularly tricky” right now, charity funding is unreliable, government funding almost out of the question, and
subscription revenue is unsustainable.

Darnton said there is a misperception of professional journalists as being “up on Mt. Olympus,” rendering thumbs-up, thumb-down verdicts,” when in fact they are there to “enhance the experience for the user.” He also said he favors large news operations because they have the money to pay for revenue-losing operations such as investigations. Amateur operations could not do that, he said. On the other hand, Jarvis pointed to citizen-generated
Web sites in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean Tsunami that provided valuable, highly localized information about safety, rescue, and support operations. Relying on amateur reporting does not always work out
during emergencies, however, Jarvis noted. After the bombing of the London Underground, one of the first citizen reports said incorrectly that there had been a power blackout. But with so many camera phones on the ground,
Jarvis concluded, news outlets must find ways to motivate and educate audiences and pay a professional to manage that community.

Case Studies 3 & 4

For the final case studies session, Columbia Journalism School professor, CJR contributor, and New Republic music critic David Hajdu introduced two men “whose work “illuminates how the very nature of journalism is changing.”

The first to speak was Robert Cox, president of the Media Blogger Association (MBA), whose case discussed increasing legal threats to bloggers and resources at their disposal. The MBA provides legal resources, helps
arrange blogger press passes, and provides media liability insurance, among other services. Cox told the previously undisclosed story of a blogger and Huffington Post contributor who had called the MBA when she found out she was being sued for defamation. The blogger had wrongly reported that a schoolmistress had been charged in a sexual abuse case. When the blogger called Cox, however, she seemed defensive and complained that the schoolmistress had not called her to correct the mistake, so she had done nothing wrong. Cox believes the case against the blogger has been dropped. But misunderstandings are “very typical of the bloggers I’ve talked to,” he said. “They don’t have any understanding of the laws that relate to what they’re doing.” That’s not always the case, Cox added, but blogs clearly have the power for “transformative good” or “great harm.”

Cox then described the MBA’s history and work. It was founded in 2004 as a “mutual defense pact” for bloggers, who have “inherent legal and operational risks.” Though they’re often one-person or small operations, they are just
as exposed as any major media company. Cox said that blogs took off in earnest four years ago, and lawsuits “immediately followed.” The MBA has been involved in over 400 cases. The vast majority have been defamation
cases, like the blogger from Wisconsin, but there have also been a number of privacy and copyright violations. Sectors like pharmaceuticals, real estate, and government “tend to be” the most litigious. “But the good news is that
bloggers mostly win,” Cox said. Thirty-five percent of cases “go away,” and bloggers win 92 percent of judgments and settlements. But the cost of defense has been going up and settlements have been as high as $20 million.

The MBA has a multi-faceted response to this trend. It offers education and training, and partnered with the Poynter Institute and News University to create an online media law course. It also provides a hotline, tips and
referrals. It created the first-of-its-kind media liability insurance that covers defamation, invasion of privacy and
copyright infringement that is cheaper than market rate. The MBA also provides peer-to-peer support networks.

Delivering the second case was Brian Lehrer, a Peabody Award-winning WNYC radio journalist and host of the The Brian Lehrer Show, who talked about some of his recent “crowd sourcing” projects. Lehrer said that as host, he is less interested in telling listeners “what he thinks” than in “starting a conversation.” One of his core principles, he said, is to “foster democracy.” One of his first crowd sourcing projects was to solicit information from listeners in order to create a map of New York City showing what percentage of cars parked on various blocks were SUVs. It “didn’t break any news,” Lehrer said, but it engaged the audience and he was able to peg a
number of on-air segments to the SUV map.

The next project, again based on the creation of a map, was called “Are You Being Gouged,” and asked listeners to report the prices of typical food items (lettuce, milk, beer, etc.) at their local markets. Here, Lehrer said, they ran into “one of the problems with crowd sourcing.” When his team fact-checked some the outlier prices (i.e. excessively high or low), they all turned out to be wrong. Nevertheless, with 450 people participating, his program did get a lot of valuable mileage from this crowd-sourcing exercise. The show was able to frame a couple on-air segments around the map (people “talked about it for months”), and they were able to discern some pricing patterns and discuss issues like the difference between independent markets and supermarkets. After that, Lehrer asked listeners to help develop a quantitative and qualitative assessment of Bill Clinton’s monetary value to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Lehrer also asked his audience to help scour the records of her activities as First Lady. It was too much for his staff to handle, he said, and to improve efficiency he advised listeners to review only the week of their birthday. After that, Lehrer did a more whimsical piece where people contributed their workday “nap strategies.”

All these projects were “moderate successes, more interesting than revelatory,” Lehrer said. But they helped lay the groundwork for the show’s “30 Issues in 30 Days” series focused on the fall 2008 presidential election campaign. “No matter what “breaking news” was happening in the campaign on a given day, the idea, as Lehrer put it, was to create a “safe space” for the issues to be explored in depth. This was to make sure his program did
not get totally caught up in the more typical horserace coverage of the mainstream media leaving serious issues of consequence neglected. Listeners played an active and important role in creating the “30 Issues in 30 Days”
series. Lehrer encouraged listeners to send in their ideas of issues to be discussed, and experts to address particular issues. The show created online wikis for listeners to comment on six of the issues and suggest angles of exploration. The quantity of participation was very low, Lehrer said, but the quality of what listeners helped produce was very high. Yet for all that, Lehrer concluded, they’ve been “dabbling at the surface” of what’s possible. The trick is to find opportunities for audience collaboration that will be “journalistically meaningful.” One thing they’ve thought of, for example, would be crowd-sourced information about construction sites, accidents and safety.

Panel Discussion: Harnessing the Power of Your Audience

The last panel of the day, moderated by Marc Perton, executive editor of online media at Consumer Reports, was titled, “Harnessing the Power of Your Audience - Applying New Information and Tools to Your Journalism.” Perton began by following up on the preceding case studies by noting that, in some way, crowd sourcing is not new. After all, he said, radio call-ins and letters the editor at newspapers have been common practice for a very long time. “What’s really different today,” he said, “is that collaborators expect to be given tools to create content on their own terms.”

Perton then introduced Lila King, who is a senior producer at and leads the cable network’s iReports team at King gave a bit of history on the project, noting that when it was created in 2006, it drew 13
iReports from viewers on the first day. By the end of 2007, CNN was getting 10,000 submissions per month, of which about 900 would be fact checked and published. Now, however, viewers can register to be iReporters and upload video and audio contributions. Anything that is used by CNN is fact checked. Most reports are self-generated, but CNN also suggests assignments, such as covering the California wildfires or contributing questions to “The Situation Room”, the CNN program. King spends a lot time pitching iReports to the network, in fact. On the day of the Virginia Tech shootings, for example, an on-the-scene iReport was the “key video of the day.” Other significant iReport coverage has included the Minnesota bridge collapse and protests in Myanmar. During the campaign, iReporters were invited to discuss the presidential debates. King said that the approach produces a “different quality” of conversation that is more “raw.” But now CNN and the audience are “all in it together,” King noted, though, “Community management takes a lot more time than I ever thought it would.” Her original estimation that it would only require a “few” hours per day was a bit “na├»ve,” she concluded.

After CNN’s King, Thor Muller, the CEO of Get Satisfaction, talked about his site, which provides “people-powered customer service.” Get Satisfaction is an open, transparent, and “neutral” forum that connects companies,
employees, and customers in an effort to foster problem solving and efficiency, asserted Muller. He said he hopes what he’s doing will be “materially useful” to journalists and then discussed four themes in customer service:

1) “Public is the New Private,” whereby there are new incentives for engagement between companies, employees, and customers that are both social and monetary. Social media creates serendipity, expands the universe of
experts, and shames companies into responding to their customers.

2) “Honesty as a Prophylactic,” whereby consumers use search engines and databases such as Google as a check on market accountability. Muller said that the Internet has given consumer more control over companies’
reputations. He noted, for instance, that it wasn’t necessary for Bob Garfield to be a media figure to succeed with Comcast Must Die. Companies can no longer hide, Muller said; they respond and social media is “changing
the way they do business.”

3) “Business is Becoming Personal,” whereby individuals are taking responsibility for their reputations and will not carry out flawed policies.

4) “Kindler, Gentler Customers,” whereby consumers are becoming less irate in their interactions with companies because they have forums where their concerns are being addressed.

Those forums also provide opportunities for consumer journalists, Muller concluded. They allow pattern matching and analysis, provide context for anecdotes, encourage re-humanization of the companies, reduce incentives for
bad actors, and demand better customer service.

The next speaker was Judith Meskill, the Chief Operating Officer of Crowd Fusion and former Chief Operating Officer of Weblogs, and a popular speaker on social media and online communities. Meskill said that she started in the business working at Pacific Bell’s Web service. At that time, the customer service team wasn’t prepared to receive customer feedback by e-mail, which seemed like a “no brainer” to her. On the first day, company employees were manning the phones while over 10,000 e-mails poured in, but no calls. This is evidence that consumers have moved on to the Web in overwhelming numbers.

Meskill’s new project, Crowd Fusion, was created to develop the new tools and platforms necessary for Web publishing at scale. Its platforms leverage a number of social media components like IM, Skype, and Google Docs. They also work on search engine optimization and aggregating “conversations” from around the Web. There is a rating and quality control system that filters for the best information. Crowd Fusion can provide journalists with helpful tools by allowing them to search for stories that are “socially popular,” and Meskill pointed to Twitter and Facebook as examples of social media that are particularly “potent” tools for journalists. The conversations that are
happening on each of these Web sites are different, she added, and there is a large incentive for companies and producers to pay attention to what is being discussed online. The same goes for journalists. Meskill said that it
is not so much that the potency of journalism is evaporating online, but rather that there is a poor “currency of trust.” Journalists, she concluded, should leverage social media to bring readers and audiences in and improve
that trust.

The fourth and last panelist was Joel Sucherman, the director of product innovation at USA Today, where he recently took the editorial lead in the re-design and re-launch of Sucherman explained that one of the founding principles at the publication was “opening its doors” to readers, and there was an early realization that those readers were an untapped resource. “Reporters will never understand the intricacies of something” as well as people who live and deal with that thing every day, he said.

Networked journalism is an important editorial mission at USA Today, but it is incumbent upon the Web site to provide the tools and the space for readers to help produce quality content rather than hollow chatter. Since
USA Today’s site re-launched, for example, each headline includes a prominent comment and recommendation count, so that readers can see where the “buzz” is. They also created more space for user-generated content. They’ve had photo collections of opening day at Major League Baseball games around the country and impressive weather scenes. Getting published on the site is a “really big deal for people,” Sucherman said. The site also has reader blogs such as the NFL Blog Squad, where readers in major cities around the country have set up home team blogs. In an effort to have the Web “give back” to the print edition, the newspaper now runs “Page 3.0,” a user-generated sports page. Such trends in social media are altering roles in the newsroom, he added. In a variation on the “Long Tail” concept of business, Sucherman offered the “Fuzzy Tail” concept whereby staff employees now have to do “a little bit of everything,” from print, to Web, to multimedia, to community management.

This new organization allows for more engaging storytelling, Sucherman argued. For example, USA Today created a “candidate match game,” in which readers entered their political positions and were shown which candidates best matched their views. There was also a “presidential poll tracker” that aggregated all of the available election polls. Sucherman described the approach as “database reporting, a gift that keeps on giving” through constant updates and a live flow of data, and which stays active for long periods of time. The databases aggregate professional and public knowledge in all media, including blogs, videos, photos, and audio files. Once again demonstrating the changing roles in the newsroom, Sucherman added that reporters are now becoming more like “curators of information.” An example of this is Gene Sloan’s Cruise Log blog at USA Today, which aggregates professional and user information about cruises. Through a variety of comments, reviews, and ratings, the expertise behind that site in provided by the crowd.

The conversation then opened up among the panelists. Perton asked King about “damage control” for false iReports at CNN. King replied that they rely on community policing, which is very effective. In a few instances, however, inaccurate information has been picked up and disseminated by sites like Digg before it could be corrected. Sucherman jumped in to defend iReports and said that one bad incident should not destroy the system. Muller agreed that people spot and correct errors very quickly online.

Perton then asked how readers’ ability to rank and recommend favorite stories affects news prioritization. Sucherman said he originally worried that with such a system, the top headlines would always involve celebrities
like Britney Spears, but that hasn’t been the case. People want to talk about important things like the presidential election and be engaged, he said. And because of that, journalists have recognized the potential resources and talent their readers and audiences provide.

The conference closed by returning to a short discussion of business models for journalism and consumer reporting. All the panelists agreed that it is a difficult time to launch a publication or a career in journalism, especially
one that makes money. Nevertheless, there is a growing demand for reporters that have “grown up” with social media and are well versed in reporting, writing, and a host of multimedia skills from video and sound editing to Web
production. As Sucherman put it, if you don’t mind being in an unsettled and uncertain world, “there has never been a more exciting time to be in this field. Historians will write about this moment.”

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