Media

Exposed: Behind the Brain Drain at Consumer Reports

How many professional journalists are still left at Consumer Reports?

With the departure of its respected managing editor, how many professional journalists are still left at Consumer Reports? Virtually all of the major editors who produced the iconic magazine, as well as some of its best and most experienced reporters, have left CR in the past couple of years. (Disclosure: I am one of the editors who chose to leave.)

The following chart I put together for my investigative site, StateoftheNet.Net, shows the more than 210 years’ journalistic experience that has marched out the door of the magazine’s Yonkers, NY headquarters since late 2012.

Until now, you wouldn’t know about this exodus, or that Consumer Reports eliminated its entire editorial division in 2013, because in late 2012, CR removed its longtime editorial masthead from the magazine. This flight of talent occurred for one simple reason: A group of senior managers, some of them newcomers to Consumer Reports, induced most of the editors to leave because those executives were certain that they knew better than the existing editorial staff did what kind of magazine consumers wanted. (For CR readers’ reaction, see the reader comments below).

Just how these executives managed to induce some of America’s best consumer journalists to abandon the magazine they loved is a story for another time and place. For now, I will tell you the main reason I left CR in 2014 after 24 years. In the previous two years of my service there, the organization’s leaders had exhibited what I considered a serious decline in integrity and accountability, the likes of which would have been unthinkable during my many years there.

The following recent online comments by CR staffers make it clear that this behavior continues today even under CR’s new president.

Consumer Reports staffers speak out

“The organization lies to employees, fires with no warning, and lacks the very credibility they try and portray in their advocacy information products.” —Fundraiser in Yonkers, NY

 “Lots and lots of money wasted on consultants and advisers with no or negative results (see new format of CR mag). They wouldn’t need to lay off people if they trusted their own employees. More money wasted on exec salaries. It’s insane what some of them make. Jim Guest was making 4-5x the median non-profit CEO salary.”  — Current employee in Yonkers, NY

The culture has been changing for the past 5 years. Employees with a long history with the company have been forced out. In trying to achieve the laudable goal of a more efficient and profitable organization, cultural memory is being wiped clean. Turnover is high and contractual security is tenuous. The warm, close-knit, and adaptable staff are being forced into a harried, CYA lifestyle. —Editor in Yonkers, NY

“Why aren’t subscribers calling for the board to step in and find true leadership?” —Content specialist in Yonkers, NY

“The real problem with Consumer Reports is its clueless board who allow the executive staff to rule without any accountability.”  —Engineer in Yonkers, NY

(Source for quotes: Glassdoor.com)

Despite their authors’ anonymity, I believe that these comments were written by actual Consumer Reports employees because they are consistent with what I observed the last couple of years I worked at CR, as well as what I’ve heard from those who have recently left CR. As for those “insane” executive salaries, you can see them on Consumer Reports’ 2013 tax return, on both sheets of a long page 8.

Redesign of Consumer Reports

By November 2014,with no pesky journalists left in their way, the new leaders put their “better idea” into practice: They radically redesigned Consumer Reports Magazine. To their surprise, reader reaction was quite negative. Many threatened to, or actually did, cancel their subscriptions. Below is a sample of their reactions.

• Reader comments posted on Consumer Reports’ Facebook page:

 “Where’s the grip-o-meter for this new layout? Is this for children, people with short attention spans, limited education, What?” — David M.

“The redesign is an absolute disaster! From the layouts, to the varying fonts, to the poorly designed charts, to the godawful colors, to the unbelievably skimpy product reviews (the main reason the magazine is published and read in the first place), etc., etc., etc. The whole mess is just plain ugly, unreadable, and offers very little of substance. If this debacle isn’t corrected fast, I won’t be waiting until renewal time to cancel. Fix it!” — Rob K.

 “I keep getting the impression I’m reading the Farmer’s Almanac – somewhat hokey and designed for people not interested in sitting down and reading an article. And, quite frankly, it looks cheap.” — Marci M.

It’s heartbreaking to watch this happen to what was once the finest consumer magazines in the world. You would think that the people who committed such a blunder would all be gone. However some of them are still directing the magazine’s design and content, even after CR, under its new president, laid off 17 other staffers in June, raising serious questions about the judgment of Consumer Reports’ top leaders.

As someone who devoted many years of his life to CR, I’m sad to see this happen to the organization and the dedicated staff. If only Consumer Reports readers knew why the magazine has changed so dramatically. If you care about Consumer Reports, let others know what is actually behind the changes at Consumer Reports by sharing this posting on your favorite social network.

To tell the CR Board what you think of its recent stewardship and the organization’s management, here are the Board members’ names. You can also reach them at this address:

Board of Directors
Consumers Union
P.O. Box EMD
101 Truman Ave.
Yonkers, NY 10703

 

Jeff Fox is a former deputy editor of Consumer Reports and a software author. His blog, StateoftheNet.net, covers online privacy and security from a consumer perspective.

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