As Kevin McKean, the vice president and editorial director of Consumer Reports, pointed out at the conference, the global economic crisis has made consumer reporting and protection “even more timely.” Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter David Cay Johnston agreed that demand for professional reporting is as strong as ever. But reporters need to refocus on “telling people that which they do not know,” he said at the conference. And in a feature for CJR that appeared in the same package as Lieberman’s report, Johnston explained that, “One of the most powerful and enduring raps on mainstream media is that it identifies too much with the people and institutions it cover and too little with the readers who pay good money for subscriptions.” Coverage of airlines, banks, and casinos—all of which is habitually more concerned with corporate earnings than customer service—epitomizes that trend. “The trick,” Johnston wrote, “is a change in perspective” that reframes the news around audiences, rather than sources.

At the conference, McKean highlighted the fact that such a paradigm shift is harder than it seems because “power follows the money,” and editorial decisions often take second place to considerations for advertisers – one of the only revenue streams left in journalism. Popken seconded that point, saying that The Consumerist has found it difficult to operate on an ad-based business model because the site doesn’t “pull any punches” in its reviews. On the brighter side, McKean said that Consumer Reports has found that a subscription-based model is still viable online, despite much evidence to the contrary. The publication’s decision to charge for access to its Web site was “gutsy to say the least,” he said, “but it turned out be phenomenally correct.”

So all is not lost for traditional media outlets that would like to re-engage with consumer reporting. But they will need to meld the best aspects of publications like Consumer Reports and the Consumerist. On the collaborative end of the spectrum, they need to harness technology in order engage readers on many different levels, “curate” the burgeoning flow of digital information, and “mine” for data and analytical tools that can improve the quality of information. They also need to look at the Web as a place for action, in addition to communication, and develop products that can be accessed (and interacted with) from a variety of mobile devices. On the competitive end of the spectrum, news outlets need to identify where the wisdom of the masses is inferior to professional expertise – this tends to be in technical fields that affect all demographics, like food and automobile safety, healthcare and medicine, and banking and finance. And they need to focus on regulation over education, and industry-wide reform over customer service.

If professional consumer reporters can do both things—if they can collaborate and compete in all the right places—they should have no trouble re-gaining the trust and respect of their audiences, and maybe even some subscription or ad revenue.

 

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