Everybody’s a Critic

Where professional journalists must make a stand in consumer reporting

What is a professional consumer reporter do to when the Internet has empowered anybody to be a critic of everything from cars, to credit cards, to healthcare plans? Worse still, at a time when government and industry have diminished the ability of consumers to protect themselves in an increasingly complicated marketplace?

Last month, the Columbia Journalism Review and Consumer Reports hosted a joint, one-day conference at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism that addressed those weighty questions. Titled “Consumer Revolution on the Web: Opportunities and Dangers for Journalism,” the event attracted 100 participants from the United States and abroad who came to hear over twenty experts from traditional and “new-media” consumer-reporting outlets.

Slideshow by Curtis Brainard/Photos by Rebecca Castillo

As the name implies, there are both risks and opportunities associated with citizen journalism, social media, crowd sourcing, user-generated reviews, and similar, emerging norms. The ups and downs are not that hard to identify. It’s the wisdom of the masses versus the expertise of the individual, accounting for the fact that individuals are not always experts, and masses are not always wise. The challenge for traditional news outlets is finding that proverbial “balance” that both serves the consumer—journalism’s charge—and provides a stable financial model—journalism’s necessity.

Many speakers at the consumer conference noted that professional critics are on the “defensive” while amateurs are gaining ground. The success of Web sites like Wikipedia and YouTube have it made it abundantly clear that the crowd can both inform and entertain. In his keynote speech at the conference, New York Times technology columnist David Pogue pointed to over a dozen sites based on user-generated reviews and information about home electronics, travel plans, personal loans, and health alerts that are more accurate, up to date, and personalized than what people can get from traditional news outlets.

That those outlets need to collaborate with readers and audiences and incorporate similar strategies into their operations is now a given. The question, if professional journalists want to survive, or the very least retake the offensive, is where do they compete? Where do they make a strategic stand that will show that expert opinion is still indispensible?

Some guidance can be found in the last great rise and fall of consumer journalism. As Trudy Lieberman, a consumer-affairs and health reporter, argued at the conference and in an feature article for CJR, “The business community killed the consumer movement” of the 1960s, which had “pushed for laws and regulations to protect buyers from the excesses of the marketplace.” In its place arose “consumerism,” which stressed education over regulation by teaching consumers to be “better buyers.” A quote from a former editor at Consumer Reports in Lieberman’s CJR piece perfectly captures the change in reporting philosophy: “It’s much more interesting to find out how I can get a delicious and safe tomato for myself than how all tomatoes can be made delicious and safe.”

The Internet excels at producing that kind of tailored, news-consumers-can-use. Professional journalists, on the other hand, have an opportunity to prove their mettle on the “all-tomatoes” question. To be sure, crowd and user-generated information campaigns have affected change in addition to education. A number of conference participants talked about successes they’ve had in launching customer service forums, including AdAge columnist and On the Media host Bob Garfield, who created the Web site Comcast Must Die; Thor Muller, CEO of the site Get Satisfaction; and Ben Popken, editor of Gawker Media’s The Consumerist site. But there is still a wide gulf between better service and the kind of industry-wide regulation that will improve the overall quality, safety, reliability, and cost of everything from food and pharmaceuticals to home loans and credits cards.

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.

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