Blogonomics: Consumerist Sold to Consumers Union

You think you can’t sell media properties in the middle of a recession? Think again: Nick Denton has managed to sell Consumerist for what Peter Kafka describes as "something in the mid-six figure range" — the kind of money that even a multi-millionaire like Denton wouldn’t mind finding in his stocking, especially when the site in question was almost certainly losing money.

The buyer — which will take down all advertising immediately, except for ads for its own products — is Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, and a company which desperately needs Consumerist’s younger readership:

The average age of a print subscriber is 60, and the average subscriber is 50. About 76 percent of Consumerist’s readers are 18 to 49, according to Quantcast.

Consumers Union is making all the right noises about respecting Consumerist’s independence and snark — and it’s re-hiring two staffers who were fired earlier this year, to boot. But this does mark the end of Gaby Darbyshire’s tenure as the best lawyer that any such website could hope to have. Take for instance this classic letter, which came in response to Dell asking Consumerist’s Ben Popken to take down a post, his forwarding the request to Gaby at 1am, and then Dell emailing again at 2am complaining that the post was still up:

from Gaby

to Tracy Holland

cc Ben Popken

date Jun 15, 2007 7:33 AM

subject Re: Posting by former Dell employee

Dear Ms. Holland,

Despite some suggestions to the contrary among some of our fellow beings, most humans need to sleep. Some of us also receive hundreds of emails a day and have to deal with every one of them. I received this email at 12am last night. It is 7am now. That’s a pretty good turnaround.

Nonetheless, that’s immaterial to the matter in hand. I’ve reviewed the post, and it appears to me that it is valid, useful and apparently overwhelmingly accurate. It’s not bitter, angry or destructive. It is quite simply good and useful information for consumers. And it appears that a Dell rep has already provided updates to various sections, which we have published, which, since they have only corrected certain parts of this report, implies that the uncorrected parts must be true. If that’s not the case, please feel free to send us more clarifications and we will update the post further with your additional notes.

We came by this material entirely legally: we were provided it by a third party voluntarily, we did not use any improper means to solicit any Dell employee to breach any agreement he may have had with you. Therefore, we do not believe we are in breach of any law in reporting on this material and, as such, cannot comply with your demands.

In addition, as I am sure you must realise – and there is certainly a history of this with Dell already – consumers tend to react far better when a company responds collaboratively to criticism, than when they act heavy-handedly or dismissively. Removing this story would be far far more damaging to Dell, I assure you, than responding to it on the Dell blog or elsewhere, since in telling our readers that Dell shut down our reporting, we would unleash a chaos of fury and acres of criticism in the press. Forget any legal position you may want to take, meritorious or not, I am deadly serious when I say that I simply cannot recommend this as a course of action. I’ve seen it happen before and it is really not pretty and I have no doubt that you will regret it.

Of course, it is your decision whether you want to pursue this matter, but I advise you to talk to the team that had to deal with the falllout from the Jeff Jarvis affair before you decide to try and silence your critics. Work for the customer, not against them.

Best regards,


It worked.

Does Consumers Union have lawyers who thoroughly enjoy writing letters like that? Does it even have lawyers who simply know about the Dell blog and the Jeff Jarvis affair and can cite them effortlessly in a formal yet entirely English-language legal communication at 7 o’clock in the morning? For Popken’s sake, I hope it does, but I suspect that Gaby is irreplaceable.

On the other hand, if Consumerist becomes a big success within Consumers Union, it might be something to add to the likes of Romenesko at Poynter as a great example of a standalone blog thriving within a corporate context. And that will increase the value of independent blogs all round, as they become increasingly desired as fill-in acquisitions.

This entry was posted in blogonomics. Bookmark the permalink.