Like the air that sustains life, facts that would help hard-pressed consumers are all around us. Instead of gathering and delivering such facts, however, we often leave subscribers gasping for useful information. And so their numbers dwindle.
Americans tend to consume all their income these days, and sometimes more than their income, which is shrinking. They are in a daily battle to spend and save wisely. Strong anecdotal evidence suggests that they love the kind of hard consumer reporting that would serve as an ally. Yet, as Trudy Lieberman details above, the press has moved away from such coverage.
It’s a missed opportunity, especially in the digital age, when evolving technology and the rise of social media potentially magnify the power of the consumer and also magnify the potential of consumer journalism, including making possible new ways to hear consumers’ thinking and complaints, and new ways to reach and inform audiences.
Publishers take note: circulation at Consumer Reports, the flagship of consumer journalism, is rising impressively. Its dead-tree edition now sells nearly 4.5 million copies a month, up 15 percent from 2005. Newsstand sales run to more than 189,000 copies a month, up two-thirds in two years. The online edition has more than three million paid subscribers, far more than even The Wall Street Journal, many of whose subscribers put the cost on their expense accounts. Small, consumer-oriented Web sites, too, as we will see, are gathering lots of eyeballs. It makes common sense now that audiences hunger for news that affects their lives, their pocketbooks, and their quality of life, news that sheds light on complex business practices that can gouge their wallets, and news about government actions that withdraw consumer protections from their families.
Covering these issues does not require a vast new investment in newsrooms. The Internet provides quick and easy access to documents that were once costly to obtain. In many jurisdictions, complete court records are online, as are extensive corporate disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission, databases on all kinds of subjects that seldom get scrutinized by reporters—from toy recalls by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to studies and inspector- general reports on how consumer agencies perform.
The Web also makes possible graphics and interactive features to engage readers, and provides tools to reach new audiences and to quickly spread important information. And newspapers have an immense advantage in their staffs of trained reporters, who know how to hunt down facts, check and cross-check them, and organize them into meaningful articles. The trick is in how those resources are deployed.
But the larger trick here is a change in perspective about what is news, a move to frame it more in terms of audiences than sources. When you examine the way newspapers tend to frame some stories, it prompts questions about what audience is being addressed, and whether the way the news is written builds audiences or, by appealing primarily to narrow interests, shrinks them. A few dailies have made small steps in the right direction; the Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant, for example, remade their Sunday business sections last November to be more consumer-oriented. The Sun drew on a remake a decade earlier at The Tampa Tribune. But journalism in general has a lot of work to do.
Consider the coverage of proposed airline mergers, such as the pending deal between Northwest and Delta, the nation’s third- and fourth-largest airlines by revenue. Reports typically focused on the problems of the airlines, whose owners want to raise fares by reducing competition. Yet most readers are passengers, and they care about ticket prices, which tend to rise when competition lessens. Consumers also care about legroom, frequency of flights, whether getting home requires a change of planes, rapidly escalating charges to change tickets (up sixfold from $25 a decade ago to $150 at most airlines today), and new charges for such services as checking a suitcase or getting a drink of water. But such consumer interests too often tend to be relegated to the middle or end of reports of proposed airline mergers, if they are mentioned at all.