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.
Popken says that “instead of bringing the data from on high—this is what we have from these experts and this is what the company PR person says—we are taking it from the customers.” It is a perspective and technique that newspapers could employ to great effect—and with more balanced reporting standards—and which might help them match Consumerist’s success in getting two million unique visitors per month with a staff of just four journalists.
Another newspaper tradition that the Web challenges is the tendency to ignore stories broken by other newspapers. A good example of this comes from the Galveston County Daily News, which since 2005 has been digging into a state program that is supposed to result in lower costs for electricity for schools and other government agencies.
The story began with coverage of a Galveston Housing Authority board meeting at which a new reporter, Sarah Viren, listened carefully when officials took up a subject that would make the eyes of most editors glaze over: an electricity-supply contract. Soon Viren, joined by reporter Martin Schladen, was questioning how much money the Reliant utility in Houston was making from a deal that was supposed to supply cheap electricity to public agencies like the housing authority and schools. (Disclosure: Schladen wrote favorably about my latest book’s chapters on electricity pricing manipulations.)
The inquiries upset both the utility and Jerry Patterson, the state land commissioner, who used his own Visa card to pay $2,212.85 for a full-page ad headlined “The Galveston Daily News and Vladimir Lenin Have Something in Common.” It told readers not to believe what the paper had reported about the cost of electricity and who benefits. But publisher Dolph Tillotson stood by his reporters. The paper noted that the state refused to release documents on the costs and benefits of the program and, at one point, demanded $93,000 before reporters could see them. Eventually, Viren and Schladen got the documents, and they proved that the program not only did not make a profit or save taxpayers money, but actually cost taxpayers and may have produced big profits for Reliant.
The stories reported in Galveston affect virtually every resident of Texas. Yet, with the exception of a few pieces by R. A. “Jake” Dyer, the consumer reporter recently laid off by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and a few other scattered pieces, no other newspaper has dug deeply in what the Daily News found, or connected in some way to its reporting. “Reporters used to cover utility-rate cases and question the reason electricity or gas should cost more,” says Mindy Spatt, the publicist for the Utility Reform Network, a California consumer organization. “Now the newspapers just report that a rate case was approved and electricity will cost so much more per month.”
But the Daily News readers told the newspaper they were eager to read more about this investigation that affected their wallets by causing them to pay more than necessary in taxes for government agencies, Tillotson said.