Niches of trust: 3 one-man consumer sites

Car Place, Theme Park Insider & Consumer World sometime outshine big media

By J.D. Lasica
Online Journalism Review

When it comes to consumer news and information, bigger is better, right? Not necessarily — and not when business interests and advertising dollars trump the rights of readers to obtain honest, hard-hitting advice that would send a media bean-counter into a stroke.

As most newspaper and broadcast journalists can attest, there are some news subjects that are considered generally off-limits to the news side, especially if they involve major advertisers or business associates of the publisher. In two decades working at daily newspapers, I’ve had only two stories spiked: One reported on a minor lawsuit against family members of my newspaper’s publisher; the second was a column criticizing the practices of used-car salesmen. My friends in the business, travel, real estate and automotive sections have also waded into their fair share of ethical quagmires. One need only head over to any journalism trade magazine for testimony to the increasingly grim tally in the battle between journalistic values and stockholders’ quarterly returns.

Certainly, patches of brave reporting and of editors standing up to advertiser interests take place all the time, with little fanfare and too few kudos. Now comes the Net to help balance the equation further.

We scoped out three sites practicing varying forms of consumer journalism and community news: The Car Place, Theme Park Insider and Consumer World. All are run by current or former print journalists who put the public interest above the bottom line. All operate on a modest budget (what else?) out of their creators’ homes. And all are possible only because of the Web.

The Car Place

Bob Bowden

Ever read a review of a new car and felt there was something missing — namely, critical commentary and skeptical journalism that looks out for your interests? Bob Bowden hears you. Oh, indeed he does.

Bowden, 60, is a veteran of the newspaper automotive wars. He worked in newsrooms for 32 years, including 21 years at the St. Petersburg Times and nine years at the Tampa Tribune. Beginning in the late 1980s he began reviewing new cars, and he’s now driven and sized up well over 1,000. But there have been bumps along the way.

“I’ve been to car shows with auto writers, and I’m amazed at how many say that it’s not our job to tick the car manufacturers off.” – Bob Bowden

In the mid-’70s he was named auto editor of the St. Petersburg Times — a tenure that lasted exactly three weeks. Bowden began running a consumer-friendly series on how to buy a new car that created such an uproar among local car dealers, he says, that the Times’ higher-ups immediately folded the section. Bowden hopped over to the Tampa Tribune and produced the paper’s auto section from 1989 to 1995. He earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for automotive criticism in 1993.

Despite the accolades, Bowden recalls, “I kept getting subtle hints from my editors that I should cut back on the criticism. They were always taking heat from the car dealers. I had an easy answer. Tell the dealers, ‘You could buy ad space. Your influence should not extend beyond the boundaries of your ad space.’ ” Eventually, the paper forced him to drop the critical commentary and list only the cars’ specifications and photos. A few months later, the paper shifted responsibility for the auto section to the advertising department.

Donna Reed, the Tampa Tribune’s current managing editor, says: “We are at a distinct disadvantage in that neither myself nor anyone presently in news management was part of that decision. I can’t assess Mr. Bowden’s account. … I would assume the newspaper was attempting to broaden its consumer writing beyond the narrow focus on automobiles since our local economy is not tied to automobile manufacturing. Automobile reviews are available through syndicates, so perhaps the decision was driven by the economics of devoting a staff writer full time to the column. Placing a syndicated column closer to the automotive ads may have been a better fit.”

By early 1995 Bowden saw the writing on the wall, began learning HTML coding, and on June 6, 1995, launched The Car Place, the Web’s first independent car review site. “If I were starting out as a car reviewer on the Web, the car manufacturers would have shrugged me off, but because I had a prior relationship as a newspaper columnist, they kept delivering me cars.” And they still do.

The Car Place won a slew of early plaudits. One reviewer said of Bowden’s critiques: “This is like having a gabby next-door neighbor who knows what he’s talking about.” Honors such as the Netscape Site of the Day and Yahoo! Cool Site awards brought teems of visitors. (Two years ago, the site drew a million hits a month, though Bowden no longer has a way to measure traffic.)

The site’s heyday came when it was featured in three upstate New York markets on Time Warner’s Road Runner cable modem service, a relationship that ended last April 1 when new corporate owners America Online axed all local programming funds. (The vice president of broadband programming at AOL Time Warner, who hired every Road Runner editor in the country, was dismissed on January 18.)

Time Warner had supplied The Car Place with video and audio equipment that allowed Bowden to produce one or two new multimedia-rich features every week. “It’s in special video and multimedia created especially for the Web that I hope to stand apart from the rest,” he says.

Today, the updates aren’t as frequent, but the site’s underlying premise remains the same: Here’s where to find blunt, useful information that takes the consumer’s side, including video clips of car performance, safety tips and reviews that pull no punches.

Safety issues — including vehicle fires, airbags, rollovers and other dangers to drivers, passengers and rescue workers — are a significant component of the site. For instance, the 2001 Suzuki Grand Vitara series sports a gas tank located only inches away from the rear bumper. The Night Vision technology flunked on the 2001 Cadillac Deville. The 2000 Suburu Legacy Outback featured sunshades that, when flipped down, dislodged the rear view mirror every time. And the Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Montana and Oldsmobile Silhouette minivans feature power doors that pose a hazard, prompting The Car Place to call for a government recall.

The site still makes use of its broadband heritage, making good use of multimedia, digital photos and animation. Bowden lets users hear the notes he dictated while reviewing a car. He lets users decide how to process the information, by reading text or kicking back and watching. “If I’m describing a flaw in the design or problem with the car, more often than not the user prefers to see it instead of taking my word for it,” he says.

You won’t see that kind of critical coverage in most newspapers or car magazines, Bowden says. “I’ve been to car shows with auto writers, and I’m amazed at how many say that it’s not our job to tick the car manufacturers off. More often than not, the manufacturers already know about a particular flaw, so who’s going to tell the consumer unless it’s an honest critic telling the truth?”

“On the Internet,” he adds, “you can tell the truth. I’ll point out the negative because the auto magazines and newspapers won’t.”

The site’s users, too, jump into the act, swapping tales of bad car experiences and unsafe vehicles in the Your Turn at the Wheel letters section.

Bowden says that most newspaper automotive sections wouldn’t pass an ethical smell test. “Travel sections have cleaned up their acts, but the ethical compromises are still really rife with the car stuff,” he says. “Almost nobody pays their own way. If you’re from a major publication, Mercedes will fly you to Germany, wine you and dine you, give you a cashmere jacket and let you do a test drive and fly you back to New York in time to write your review.”

The staffers of The Car Place aren’t wholly oblivious to lucre, of course. None of the four other reviewers writing for The Car Place are paid, but Bowden points to fringe benefits both tangible and intangible. “There’s an immense value to having cars to drive. If it had to come out of my wallet, there’s no way I’m tooling around in a new Jaguar and Mercedes and Lexus. And don’t forget the savings on car insurance.” Beyond that, however, the site’s staffers receive and bequeath no favors.

Like most other Web publishers, Bowden is barely scraping by financially. “The site has never made me money per se,” he says, and banner advertising “is dead.” The referral fees he gets as an Amazon books affiliate amount to $48 for every $1,000 of business sent Amazon’s way. He’s hoping an advertising sponsor, like a Quaker State or Valvoline, will step forward.

“The model for sites like this to make money isn’t there yet,” he says. “My fear is that pretty soon you’ll have all the creative people dropping off the cliff. I don’t want this to turn into a vanity site. It’s got to serve the public good and live up to the high standards we’ve set.”

Theme Park Insider

Robert NilesWhere The Car Place and Consumer World are chiefly the work of two individuals, Theme Park Insider‘s genius is the way it deputizes its 3,000 registered users into serving as consumer watchdogs.

Theme Park Insider, in short, is the essence of a community news site.

Robert Niles, a print and online journalist who’s now a senior producer with latimes.com, worked at Walt Disney World in Florida as a trainer on the Tom Sawyer attraction during a summer job 10 years ago. He used that background to launch a message board on amusement park attractions and then to create a site where people could rate attractions on a 0-10 scale. The site began with Disney World and Disneyland, grew to include Universal Parks, and a community of users began to flourish, expanding the site in other directions.

“The Net’s stepping into the breach, and that’s a great thing for the consumer.” – Robert Niles

“The whole thing started as a programming experiment to see what kind of community journalism could work,” Niles says.

Today, some 3,000 registered users and a couple of dozen volunteers maintain the site, which has grown to include information on 40 or so theme parks around the world. The site lets users rate and review attractions, rides, restaurants and hotels.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a brief item on Theme Park Insider and said, “This kind of communal data gathering isn’t generally recognized as a form of journalism.” Perhaps not, but it’s high time that it should be.

For example, the site’s Accident Watch section collects reports of injuries, accidents and occasional deaths that occur on amusement rides — a role that the federal and state governments have forfeited. As Theme Park Insider points out: “No official source is keeping a complete national record of theme park accidents. And in many U.S. states, including Florida, theme parks are not required to report accidents involving injury to anyone.”

Says Niles: “Let’s face it, money talks. The theme parks certainly know how to lobby and contribute money. So it is surprising that it’s unregulated? No. Is it disappointing? Yes. That’s why we thought it would be valuable to include safety information as a way to raise people’s awareness that they can’t just turn off their brains when they enter the front gate. These are big, moving pieces of machinery that have the potential for some peril.”

Theme Park Insider’s safety coverage won the award for independent service journalism at the Online Journalism Awards in October.

The site’s other features include a lowdown of members’ choices of the top 10 theme parks (Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando has topped the list for some time), top 20 attractions (Spider-Man at Islands of Adventure is No. 1), best roller coasters (Space Mountain), dark rides, restaurants, most hated attractions, and so on.

Perhaps the coolest feature is a download to your Palm or other wireless device that puts ratings of a half-dozen parks’ attractions at your fingertips.

But the heart of Theme Park Insider may be the robust News and Commentary section, which lets users swap stories about their personal experiences, offer critiques, and verify or vanquish rumors. Unlike most other community sites, topics must be approved by the moderator (Niles) before they get posted, and only registered users may post, which greatly cuts down on the riff-raff.

“I wanted to get away from the idea of a rumor board and push the site into a more instructive direction, with commentary and opinion that provides insight,” Niles says. “If something is dead wrong, libelous, obscene or profane, I can delete it. Quite frankly, that very rarely happens. People take this as a chance to have their word heard instead of posting things completely out of left field.”

As with any kind of community news, the reportage should be taken at face value. Say you’re hurt by a ride’s lap bar and want to report it. The News and Commentary section treats a single account as a “rumor,” two independent accounts as a “report.” That may trouble traditional journalists who see it as a site owner’s responsibility to verify fact from fiction. The Web’s growing culture of self-correction and accountability, however, helps militate against intentional falsehoods. “People take pride in being part of the community and they discourage that kind of errant reporting or mischievous behavior,” Niles says. “We’re at the point where the community polices itself.”

Too often in the mainstream news media, Niles says, a media outlet will cover the opening of a new ride or attraction, but there’s little sustained coverage of the theme park industry, even though millions of people visit the parks every year. “I’d like to see traditional journalism being more aggressive in covering this, but for whatever reason they don’t. And so the Net’s stepping into the breach, and that’s a great thing for the consumer.”

In addition to theme park visitors, the site also gets steady traffic from theme park employees who are quick to validate reports or shoot down erroneous information. Has Niles heard at all from Disney officials? “The silence has been deafening, but we are getting hits off their intranet. So they’re reading us.”

Theme Park Insider has been careful to avoid trademark infringement, so you won’t see logos, park maps, sound files, songs or cute cartoon characters, as you do at various fan sites. Niles says his journalistic background has helped shape the site’s persona.

“As a journalist, I’m sensitive to the difference between fact and opinion, and that how you package and prioritize opinion has an effect on its value to the reader,” he says. “I’ve tried to organize discussions in a way that promotes useful commentary, and the rankings system provides a quick consensus of people’s likes and dislikes at a glance.”

Revenue from Theme Park Insider isn’t enough to entice Niles to quit his day job. The site gets by on user donations, referral fees from Amazon book links and commissions from hotel room bookings. “It’s enough to pay for server space and buy me a dinner and movie once a month,” he says.

Niles thinks community news sites hold great potential for large chunks of cyberspace’s readership. “I think you’re seeing some of the sites run by people who don’t have the same level of journalistic sensitivity begin to flicker out — the sites on GeoCities or TheGlobe.com,” he says. “If they had the guiding hand of someone with a journalistic sensibility, more of these kinds of success stories will take wing and prosper and perhaps become worthy competitors to traditional media in many ways. The pets.coms and boo.coms have gotten all the attention in the past, but now that they’re gone, I believe the collaborative community projects — the tortoises of the dotcom world — will be the ones that pan out in the long run.”

Consumer World

Edgar Dworsky

Of the three sites highlighted here, Consumer World, ironically, probably has the least to do with consumer journalism. But it deserves inclusion by dint of its success as a clearinghouse or aggregator of consumer information. A consumer’s Yahoo or Yellow Pages, if you will.

The site was founded in 1995 by Edgar Dworsky, who runs it out of his townhouse in Somerville, Mass. Dworsky began his career as a consumer advocate in the late 1970s as an investigator with the Boston consumers’ council and then as a consumer reporter for Channel 7 in Boston before becoming an assistant attorney general for consumer protection and a consumer education consultant for the Federal Trade Commission.

“Our value comes in filtering. No consumer is going to spend the amount of time each week that I spend on this topic.” -Edgar Dworsky

The site, which has changed little over the years, has two main components: a constantly updated database of material around the rim of the page that spotlights bargains and consumer-friendly factoids related to travel, finance, products, government agencies and other resources, and a news-related section in the center of the page, whose contents change weekly. On this day, Consumer World is pointing to an article in Smart Money on how to save money on car insurance, a story in Kiplinger’s on what to look for in a digital camera, a Consumer Reports tip sheet on cellular phone plans, and other pointers.

The site’s home page drew 1.3 million visitors last year, and 18,000 subscribers get a newsletter that highlights the week’s major consumer news and top bargains.

Every day, Dworsky says, he reads hundreds of press releases and news stories, surfs the Web, and checks all the new sites that go up on Yahoo, all to filter the most significant consumer information.

“For years I developed educational brochures, and here I’m educating consumers by organizing and spotlighting things that other people have written about,” he says. “To the extent that I’m picking and choosing stories about scams or consumer news that deserves to be highlighted on the front page, it’s journalism. But there’s very little original content in Consumer World. Our value comes in filtering. No consumer is going to spend the amount of time each week that I spend on this topic.”

One story that Dworsky thinks the news media underreported was the bankruptcy of CyberRate.com, a dotcom whose flameout cost the site’s participants more than $80 million. “I was so distressed to see thousands of consumers being out of pocket that I put up a special page advising them how to cut their losses.”

Dworsky doesn’t buy merchandise at every online retailer or bargain outlet he highlights, of course. “I try to use my sixth sense of whether the retailer seems familiar and offers valuable information,” he says.

As a frequent shopper on the Net, the first thing I do when I encounter an obscure online retailer is to hop over to BizRate or Gomez to see their scores, but Dworsky is more skeptical of merchant rating services. “I was at a conference and Gomez, BizRate, Forrester and Consumer Reports all flashed on screen their list of top retailers, category by category, and everyone had a different list,” he says. “Some of these small, unknown retailers can show up as No. 1 with feedback from fewer than 100 customers.”

Dworsky also casts a wary eye at product review sites that rank products or services based on user feedback. “Several of these sites have approached me for a listing, and I’ve turned them all down, except for Epinions, which does a quality job,” he says. “I call them gripe sites. It just rubs me the wrong way that consumers can post a public complaint about a company or product with no effort to contact the company to get their side of the story.”

Interestingly, he doesn’t have the same complaint about online retailers like Amazon or BabyCenter that let customers review and rate products. “I find the user comments on Amazon very helpful,” he says.

In addition to sending newsletters and publishing on his site, Dworsky also issues press releases to the news media about consumer bargains, marketplace rip-offs or industry settlements. But he’s not inclined to write a consumer column. “That’s work,” he says flatly. “Being on TV, you had this constant pressure to produce content. I always had the sword of Damocles hanging over my head. This is so much easier. I get to convey all the consumer information I want, but I use other people’s efforts and research.”

Dworsky says one of the main services Consumer World offers is its database of resources. “The great thing about the Net is, it’s there when you want it or need it. Consumers usually don’t pay attention to these sorts of things until they have a problem, so if you’ve bought a lemon you can hop over to my site rather than hope you’ll pick up a magazine this week and come across a story on cars.” He’d like to see a site that aggregates news stories on consumer topics, but fears that may be unlikely with more news sites moving toward paid archives.

In today’s market, a consumer news publication, staffed by a team of journalists and researchers, wouldn’t make it. Instead, the field’s dividing into two segments, Dworsky says: the giant Consumer Reports site, with more than 700,000 paid subscribers to its online edition, and the small, one-person sites and niche operations “who are in it because of their passion and dedication, and not for the income.”

Like the others, Dworsky won’t divulge how much he makes from the site, but it’s enough to keep him afloat. He’s begun to disclose his revenue sources on the site’s front page — a smart move, considering that his stock in trade is consumers’ trust in his credibility. Verizon, a longtime supporter of consumer causes, helps underwrite the site. And Dworsky gets “paid in pennies” every time a visitor goes fairly deep into a search on PriceChecker or Amazing Bargains from his site.

“The pennies mount up, and it turns out that it’s not enough to get rich, but enough to pay the mortgage,” he says.

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT