Jarvis tried and tried to get Dell to fix his faulty machine, calling an 800 number and then enduring long stretches on hold, broken by ill-trained “customer-service representatives” who transferred him to another help desk only to have the line go dead. Jarvis eventually got mad as hell and announced on his blog, BuzzMachine, that he was not going to take it anymore. Almost instantly, word of his woes in “Dell Hell” spread across the Web, and legions of angry Dell customers opened their windows, leaned in, and said they, too, were mad as hell and were not going to take it anymore. Dell heard the complaints and quickly responded to Jarvis.
What happened next illustrated both the power of vigilante consumerism on the Internet and a problem news organizations need to consider if they want consumer journalism to resonate with readers. Dell solved Jarvis’s problem, just as other companies have been quick to pay attention to what some call A-list bloggers. But in this case Dell also changed its policies on servicing its computers, extending a benefit not just to one customer whose problem drew a spotlight, but taking a systemic approach.
Solving one reader’s problems is not hard-edged consumer reporting, just consumer advocacy with a barrel of ink (or electrons). Getting the attention of companies, governments, and nonprofits so they respond to problems with systemic solutions and changes in policy is the very definition of hard-edged consumer coverage. And using the Web to encourage such systemic reform—on subjects from computer service to health care to the regulation of consumer credit—is rich with promise.
Another indication that thinking, not spending, is key to good consumer reporting comes from the Web site Consumerist, a lightly financed part of the snarky Gawker family of sites. While many newspapers run product reviews, especially of electronic gadgets and software, Consumerist stays away from such critiques. Instead, it solicits stories from readers. “We get tips from readers, so a lot of what we put up is original because it comes from reader e-mail,” says editor Ben Popken, who heads a staff of seven, just four of them writers who get paid largely by how often their pieces are viewed.
One of those recent tipsters was Vincent Ferrari of New York City, who, like many people, discovered it was virtually impossible to unsubscribe when AOL was a paid Internet service. Ferrari eventually taped one of his conversations with AOL customer-service agents in 2006. Consumerist alerted its audience by posting Ferrari’s audio file, an experience that resonated with so many people it was covered as news by many bigger organizations. (AOL eventually dropped its pay model.)
Then there was the case of the peeping geeks, surely a story to interest readers who sometimes need a computer repaired. Popken’s staff heard that when people hired Best Buy’s Geek Squad to fix their computers, their personal photos, especially naughty photos, were being copied and, in at least one case, posted on the Internet. Robert Stephens, the Geek Squad’s chief inspector, reached out to Consumerist and asked for the name of the employee who posted the photo. Popken refused, “because they would have then said it was just one bad apple, the one-in-a-million bad apple,” and Popken had by then heard enough reports that he believed snooping was widespread. Geek Squad soon undertook a broad inquiry, including stings to catch the information-stealing employees, and also adopted a policy of telling its workers not to snoop.
Popken also showed how skepticism remains a valuable, if too-little-employed reportorial tool. When a blogger at his own site said that Wal-Mart was selling T-shirts with the “death skull” symbol from the caps of the Nazi SS, Popken spread the news through Consumerist. CNN, the Chicago Tribune, and others picked up the story, including Wal-Mart’s statement that it had no idea of the symbol’s past and that the T-shirts were being removed. Yet sixty-two weeks later, Popken’s staff reported that the shirts remained on sale at the Wal-Mart in Palmdale, California, a story it had pretty much to itself. Wal-Mart repeatedly threatened litigation over the continuing coverage, Popken said, but Consumerist reported not only that Wal-Mart’s statement that it had removed the shirts was untrue but that this was not the first time Wal-Mart had sold items linked to fascism. For example, in 2004, Wal-Mart bookshelves carried The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, the infamous anti-Semitic creation of the secret police in czarist Russia.