Meet Ben Popken. Attention, newspaper executives: this guy is going to mess you up.
Ben is 26 years old and sits atop the editorial pyramid at the blog Consumerist.com. In conventional media terms, that pyramid isn’t very big – only seven people – but Consumerist’s reach far outweighs its small staff. The site gets 15 million unique visitors per month. Maybe more importantly, it’s closely watched by mainstream media outlets, which frequently pick up on its best stuff and broadcast it to a global audience.
For example, The New York Times has referenced Consumerist 381 times, The Wall Street Journal 114 times and BusinessWeek 37 times. Consumerist stuff gets picked up on Digg.com constantly – 34,000 citations and counting. Popken was recently featured in a cover story in BusinessWeek and wrote a 2,300-word article for Reader’s Digest. All without a day of formal journalism training.
Ben Popken isn’t a professional journalist, at least not as that role is traditionally defined. In fact, prior to joining Consumerist two years ago, he had never worked at a newspaper, TV station or in radio. His career during and after college consisted of a variety of entrepreneurial sales ventures and odd jobs. He worked as a delivery man not long before joining Consumerist. He only got the job because the previous editor’s mother read his blog.
Consumerist gets about 100 e-mails a day from consumers talking about their horrible encounters with businesses of all kinds. Big box retailers, banks, cell phone providers, cable companies and airlines are popular targets. Consumerist editors read and respond to each and every e-mail (how many of you editors at major metropolitan dailies have a policy like that?) and write up about 30 of those submissions a day for the site.
New Style of Journalism
They don’t fact-check what they post and they don’t call the companies in question for comment. The mission of the site is “to empower consumers by informing and entertaining them about the top consumer issues of the day,” Popken says. “We give them a voice by directly publishing their tips and e-mails and then following up on them as warranted.”
A lot of journalists shudder when they read words like these. “Directly publishing their tips and e-mails?” With no editorial oversight? It sounds like an invitation to disaster. But it works. If the story is wrong, the editors take it down. So far, the lack of fact-checking hasn’t been a problem. Consumerist gets the occasional legal threat, but it’s never amounted to much. The cease-and-desist letters have almost stopped, Popken told me.
What is changing is that consumer-facing companies are beginning to revisit their customer service operations and remove the walls that have separated them from the public, walls that are relentlessly beaten upon by consumer advocacy sites. Like this one A few have even asked Consumerist for advice, although not as many as you might think.
With no formal journalism training, no years spent covering city council meetings for a small daily and no editorial oversight, Ben Popken is becoming one of the most powerful voices in consumer journalism. And what’s funny is that if you ask him about the secret of Consumerist’s success, he’ll use the same words that any good editor would use: “The secret is to be reader-centric in a fundamental way. The content is driven by the readers and reacted to by the readers. We’re really just a curator of consumer-generated content.”
A lot of newspaper editors dismiss citizen journalism because they know that good journalism could never be done by an amateur. Could it be that journalism isn’t really all that mysterious? Or that the way we’ve done things for the last 100 years isn’t necessarily the only way to practice the craft? Ben Popken doesn’t care what the old rules are, and so far he’s doing just fine.
This entry was posted on Sunday, April 6th, 2008 at 11:43 pm and is filed under blogging, Citizen Journalism, Journalism, NewMedia, Newspapers. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.