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So What Do You Do, Kevin McKean, Editorial Director, Consumer Reports?

McKean's 'media neutral' strategy positions this consumer mag with the most paid subscribers of any content site

- April 14, 2010
When Consumer Reports' parent organization, the Consumers Union, was founded in 1936, the U.S. was deep in the Depression and money-conscious citizens were looking for ways to steer clear of shoddily made and unsafe products. The organization promised scientific testing to separate the solid and well-built consumer goods from the rest. Today, the Yonkers, N.Y.-based organization is still at it, and its publications remain among the most read in the country. What's more, because it is unable to accept advertising, ConsumerReports.org has the most paid subscribers of any content site on the Web: 3.2 million and counting.

At the helm of the company's editorial arm is Kevin McKean, a longtime fan of consumer magazines with large audiences. With a small staff and more than 20 editorial products to oversee, he says the Consumer Reports brand has endured because it learned from its mistakes early on and adopted a "media neutral" stance. And, he says, you don't need a lab coat to emulate his success.


Name: Kevin McKean
Position: Editorial director of Consumer Reports
Birthdate: "Before Arianna."
Hometown: Detroit, Mich.
Education: Yale University
Resume: Started out after college as a night police reporter with the Chicago City News bureau. Moved to Denver to work the night rewrite desk for The Associated Press in 1976 and then continued on to AP bureau in New Orleans. Was transferred to New York to become the AP's national science writer in 1978. Moved to Discover magazine in 1981 as a writer, and went on to be a senior editor there. In 1987, Time Inc. sold Discover and McKean moved to Money, where he was also a senior editor. Was launch editor for Money's Web site in 1994, and then was absorbed into Time Inc.'s new media division. Moved to Forbes.com to be executive editor in the late '90s. Became editor-in-chief of PC World in 2000, and then CEO of Info World in 2003. Joined Consumer Reports as editorial director in 2005.
First section of the Sunday Times: "I read the Times exclusively online, so I generally read the top news first, and then the columnists."
Favorite TV show: "Anything on TCM. '30s and '40s film noir."
Last book read: Stalingrad by Antony Beevor
Guilty pleasure: Chocolate

When Consumer Reports started in the 1930s, there wasn't a whole lot of competition with publications doing consumer advocacy and testing. Today, on blogs and Facebook and Twitter, people are constantly sharing opinions about products. How has that changed the magazine's approach?
I think it's greatly changed it... My number one biggest challenge is always the rise of good user opinion on the Web, because I do believe it's the biggest threat that Consumer Reports faces. That said, I do believe that Consumer Reports will continue to be strong. There is an inherent value to laboratory-based testing that, if it's done right, cannot be duplicated even by very smart users.

"We're the best judge of information that the average user just can't get, and won't be able to get without a significant capital investment… That's where we have an edge."

To take an example, when we test a refrigerator we put specially instrumented food-like stuff all over the refrigerator, wires coming out of it, so we can measure the temperature at any one of these points inside the unit. We then close it up and turn it on, and set it for whatever temperature, and put it in a room we can control the temperature of and crank that up to 105 degrees, say. And then we measure how long that refrigerator can hold its temperature and how much energy it takes to do that. And you can look at that across all models. So there are certain things that you can do in a laboratory-based environment that are relevant to purchase decisions. They're not the only things relevant. If I wanted to know which refrigerator had the best egg trays, I'd probably take user reviews. But we're the best judge of information that the average user just can't get, and won't be able to get without a significant capital investment -- that's the barrier to entry. I think that that's where we have an edge.

What's the relationship between your main site and the Consumerist blog you bought from Gawker Media in 2008?
Gawker discovered that it was very hard, for reasons that weren't totally obvious from the beginning, that it was really hard to get sponsors to buy advertising on a site that runs an annual contest on the worst companies in America. So Gawker got to the point where it put Consumerist up for grabs. We raised our hand, and had a number of talks and that deal eventually went through. Consumerist is very deliberately operated... they are very independent. They run their own editorial operation, they cover a lot of the stuff that Consumer Reports covers.

Do they ever write stuff that disagrees with your coverage?
We haven't tried to enforce that uniformity on them. Could they come out and take a huge stand if it ran 100 percent counter to what Consumer Reports says? I hope they wouldn't have to. I can't imagine that arising. But there are times when the CR guys are jumping up and down about some issue, and the Consumerist is mentioning it but not spending a lot of time on it -- and vice versa. It's just a good, impressive, consumer journalism group. One of the things that I think is so good about them is that the writing is good. The ability of Consumerist to find this dark humor in the machinations of commercial America is fascinating.

The way that it functions in the business here is that they are a very deliberate attempt on our part to reach a younger audience. They are all free and likely to remain so, although I wouldn't be surprised if we wind up bolting some paid services onto them just to see if there's information we can't sell in that environment. They are driven to a much larger extent than Consumer Reports is by social media -- though Consumer Reports is getting there.

"Consumer Reports had to bite the bullet early on two challenges that a number of media organizations postponed for years to their detriment… We were forced to because there's no advertising."

As you said before, ConsumerReports.org has more than 3 million subscribers, which makes it the largest paid content site in the world. Are there any lessons that you think it has for other publications in terms of charging online?
I would guess that most of the people in traditional media view Consumer Reports as an outlier. They regard the success that Consumer Reports has had as an anomaly. And I have a different view. I think that Consumer Reports had to bite the bullet early on two challenges that a number of media organizations postponed for years to their detriment. The first was: How do you develop paid content? Now, sure, we had an absolute edge with lab-driven content -- but you still have to sell it. That's not easy, and it took years to get that right. And the success of the site is a testament to the marketing people who figured that out. We had many false starts and poor results before we started to get the good ones. We were forced to because there's no advertising.

The other thing that Consumer Reports had to face early is: "How do you solve the problem of producing content in an integrated way for multimedia outlets?" Our little newsroom of 60 to 70 people feeds two monthly magazines, two monthly newsletters, 15 or 16 one-shot publications per year... the big Web site, the health Web site, the Consumerist, a syndicated video product that goes to 80-plus stations in the U.S. and Canada, a ton of Web videos... Everybody's got several hats that they wear. So what that means is that the person who is writing the long-form magazine story will then turn around and write the short-form sassy version of the story [for a different magazine], and then may write a blog post that calls attention to it, and then may also put together the script that becomes the video we distribute to our partners, and in some cases then just throw up on YouTube.

Early on, and this predates me, [Consumer Reports] realized that if they stayed just a print company we would die. So in about 2004 they reorganized the entire company based along the lines of being "media neutral." The idea was that we serve all customers.

"Media neutral" does not mean you write once and then use any way. In fact, every piece of content has to be created for the medium on which it is destined to be published. But first what you get good at creating content for different kinds of media -- but second you get really good at repurposing. The interesting thing about the repurpose is that it's not actually the same piece of content. Shop Smart will take bits and pieces of 10 different tests that appeared in Consumer Reports and other outlets, and they will cobble them together with something of a new spin. And even though nearly all of that content has appeared in some form elsewhere, it's all new. And because it's packaged in a new way, you don't even notice it.

As a reporting agency, you have very strict ethical standards about employees. What is the vetting process like for new hires?
The conflict-of-interest policy was stringent when I got here, but it was tightened up even further since then. So there's a lengthy form that you have to fill out each year where you have to report your holdings and those of your spouse. The idea is that if you cover autos, you can't own autos. For someone like me, I don't cover anything, but in effect I cover everything. So I can't own anything. For people like me, you can just get big plain vanilla mutual funds, or a blind trust if you have the assets to justify that. We're very serious about that. We take charges of errors very seriously, we take charges of plagiarism very seriously, and charges of conflict-of-interest very seriously.


David Hirschman is managing editor at BigThink.com.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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