OBIT: Consumerist.com publishes last post; a huge voice for consumers is silenced

Consumerist.com has died. Its life should be celebrated, but disappearance of its loud pro-consumer voice should be deeply mourned — especially now.

Consumerist.com (2005-2017) — an obituary.

From the start, Consumerist.com was different. Very different.

From my perch writing a consumer column called The Red Tape Chronicles for MSNBC.com, I watched in shock (and a little jealousy)  as the site boldly went where other journalists feared to go.  A few consumers would complain about some kind of rotten behavior, and the site would simply publish the accusations and dare a company to respond.  No waiting for comment. No deliberation with a nervous editor or lawyer. No “we have to get both sides” of a story that obviously didn’t have two sides. Consumerist just went with it.

And it got results.

Consumerist arrived at just the right time and hit just the right notes, back in 2005, when the blog form was making the transition from hobbyist site to Internet force.  Soon, companies hated ending up on Consumerist, they began returning emails quickly, and they fixed problems.

Despite the aggressive style, Consumerst rarely had to correct or apologize.  Meanwhile, plenty of companies did. Through the years, Consumer.com had endless success stories. Perhaps its biggest was editor Ben Popken’s formulation of the Executive Email Carpet Bomb — shortcut for haunting companies with a mountain of well-directed emails to ask that a wrong be righted. It worked so well that The New York Times’ Ron Lieber feted the method at its 10 year anniversary earlier this year.

Sadly, the end was already being planned for Consumerist.com.

As the story goes in newsland, blogs killed the news websites, which in turn killed blogs.  Back in 2008, seeking to shake its stuffy ways and dive into the deep end of the digital pool, Consumers Union purchased Consumerist from Gawker Media.  This gave Consumerist a fantastic halo of legitimacy, but it also led to the site’s demise.  It was hard to marry the gritty style with Consumer Union’s established ways. Eventually, Consumerist killed comments — a rational choice for traditional media companies, but a terrible one for a community-complaint-driven site.  Popken’s departure certainly hurt. Meanwhile, blogs — and websites in general — slowly fell out of favor.  Surely, there are plenty of other issues that led to Monday’s sad news.

My favorite Consumerist story is a selfish one: When my book Stop Getting Ripped Off came out, Consumerist and I held a joint meet-up/book party at an Irish pub on New York’s Upper East Side. Free beer for frequent commenters! I relished the chance to meet all these consumer freedom-fighters in person. Good people, all. These are the fun things you get to do when you publish a book. (Thanks, Ben.)

YOUR favorite Consumerist story is the legendary AOL “Cancel the account” incident.  

First in a long line of recorded customer phone calls broadcast to the world to shame a firm, an AOL customer tries desperately to shut off his service while a customer service rep simply ignores his pleas. The transcript deliciously devolved into this, according to Consumerist: “Cancel the account. Cancel the account. Cancel the account. CANCEL THE ACCOUNT. CANCEL THE ACCOUNT. CANCEL THE ACCOUNT. FOR GOD’S SAKE JUST CANCEL THE F***ING ACCOUNT.”

Without Consumerist, we might never have heard that call. In fact, we might all still be paying $19.99 for AOL.

So, I count Oct. 30, 2017, as a sad day for consumers, and for me personally.

While the two consumer organizations seemed like a match made in Heaven, in the end, like many marriages, it just didn’t work out. On Monday, Consumers Union announced it was shuttering the site and getting rid of its staff.  The organization says the Consumerist spirit will live on at Consumer Reports. More likely, it will spring up somewhere else. It better.  Now, more than ever, consumers need loud, clear voices representing their interests.

The disappearance of perhaps the loudest voice is something to mourn.

 

About Bob Sullivan 1137 Articles

BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

5 Comments

  1. I am surprised how little mention there is of this out on the web. So far, this site and of all things, the New York Post. I feel a bit like there may be more to this story then Consumer Reports just decided it wasn’t working out… The way it just was thrown on Consumerist staff on a Tuesday in the middle of the day… Is odd at best… I may be wrong or it may come out at some future point, but it seems like they may have stepped on one toe too many and CR caved. Or I’m getting paranoid… Either way, the loss of Consumerist couldn’t have come at a worse time, with the impending rollback of net neutrality, this administration’s desire to gut the CFPB and what will surely be a rash of financial institution emboldened by their new forced arbitration powers.
    I can only hope the staff of Consumerist can somehow pull together and reform a new and better version…
    We really, really need them more then ever now.

      • I will and have been… It’s a real shame.
        And thank you for covering this story and for having a site that sticks up for consumer rights and shines a light on the scammers and thieves out there.
        It’s good to know someone cares and has integrity.

  2. My worst fear is that the content CR is now substituting, which is not bad from a consumer news perspective (minus that certain…attitude), will soon be put behind a paywall.
    Bob, let us know here if a suitable replacement for Consumerist arises like a Phoenix from the ashes.

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