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Meet Ben Popken. You’ve probably never heard of him, but I recommend you learn what he’s all about. He and others like him are rewriting the rules of journalism and, with it, the practice of media relations.
Ben sits atop the editorial pyramid at the blog The Consumerist. 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, a number that has roughly doubled in the past year. Perhaps more importantly, it’s closely watched by mainstream media outlets. For example, The New York Times has referenced Consumerist 381 times, The Wall Street Journal 114 times and BusinessWeek 37 times. Consumerist gets picked up on the popular social bookmarking site Digg.com constantly — 34,000 citations and counting. Popken was recently featured in a cover story in BusinessWeek and just wrote a 2,300-word article for Reader’s Digest. All without a day of formal journalism training.
That’s right, no journalism background; at least not as that concept is traditionally defined. Prior to joining Consumerist two years ago, Popken’s professional career had 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.
What’s even more interesting than his background is the way his staff reports the news. 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. Editors read and respond to each and every e-mail and write up about 30 of those submissions each day for the site. They also monitor a variety of news services looking for important stories that affect consumers.
The New Journalism?
Consumerist editors do little fact-checking. They don’t have time with the volume of material they process. If something is wrong, they expect readers to quickly correct it. This direct reader input is the heart and soul of the Consumerist model, which Popken describes as “to empower consumers by informing and entertaining them about the top consumer issues of the day. 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. No editorial oversight? No verification of facts? It sounds like an invitation to disaster. But so far it’s worked. Consumerist gets the occasional legal threat, but it’s never amounted to much. And its laser focus on reader interests has won it a fanatical following. Have you ever sent a letter to a newspaper about a story you read and failed to get a response? At The Consumerist, you are the story.
With his site having already passed the venerable Consumer Reports in traffic, by some accounts, you’d think marketers would be beating down the door trying to get Popken’s opinion. Yet surprisingly, he told me he gets few invitations to speak or consult. Some companies that the blog has repeatedly spotlighted have taken proactive measures. Sprint, for example, set up a dedicated support line for Consumerist readers, but only after the site published direct phone numbers for many of its executives.
With no formal journalism training, no editorial oversight and none of the trappings of conventional media, 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 uses the same words that any good editor uses: “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.”
Get used to this. It’s the online journalism model of the future.