Consumer Reports editor Kim Kleman: “We take it seriously.” PODCAST INTERVIEW

Kim Kleman, editor, Consumer Reports, Mr. Media Interview

Kim Kleman, editor, Consumer Reports, 2007-13

(Note from Mr. Media: Kim Kleman left Consumer Reports in June, 2013 after 16 years and joined The American Lawyer as Editor-in-Chief in February 2014.)

In the 1970’s, my dad never made any purchase of substance without consulting Consumer Reports. Vacuum cleaners, toaster ovens, window air conditioners, used cars — he never made a move without CR.

In those pre-Internet days, he collected the magazine’s back issues the way I collected comic books. I just kept my comics a lot neater and more organized than he did his magazines.

Today’s Consumer Reports is very different from the one my dad admired, thanks to the Internet. There are a whole host of web sites and services competing to provide consumer information in what used to be a niche owned solely by Consumer Reports. Consumers now have instant free access to consumer-written product performance reviews from Amazon.com to Epinions and everywhere in between. In the wired world, it seems, everybody has an opinion and wants to share it.

We’ll talk about that today with my guest Kim Kleman, the new Consumer Reports editor (the flagship publication of Consumers Union). She’s also an old acquaintance whom I worked with at the Tampa Tribune twenty years ago and whom my wife worked with at the St. Petersburg Times. Kim joined Consumer Reports in 1997 and has since been managing editor, deputy editor, and special assignments editor, shepherding award-winning investigative projects. Earlier this year, Kim was promoted to editor-in-chief.

BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: I’m sure you were very proud to be promoted to editor-in-chief at the magazine, but I suspect you and everyone else wish it were under better circumstances this year.

KIM KLEMAN: Well, it is a huge honor to work here. I have fun every day that I come to work.

You’re referring to the problem we had with our infant car seat testing. I’m happy to say that I feel like we’ve learned significant lessons from that experience. We are moving on, and we have exciting projects ahead of us. We take it very seriously. The last several months have been a period of intense introspection and communication with our readers as to. “Here’s what went wrong, here’s what we’re doing about it,” and onward and upward.

ANDELMAN: It’s very unusual over the years to hear anything bad reported about Consumer Reports. So when this happened, it had to be a cultural shock for people in the institution as well as people who read the magazine. I hate to put you through this, but can you just take a minute to review for people what happened with the child safety seats?

KLEMAN: We test child safety seats periodically and to do that, we use an outside laboratory which has specialized test equipment that we don’t have here on site. I would say that of all the testing we do, maybe about 10 percent of our tests involve outside labs for specialized testing equipment or outside expertise that we don’t have internally. That said, we take responsibility for everything that we test, either in-house or outside.

With child safety seats, we attempted testing that went above and beyond the government standard. There was a severe miscommunication between our testers and the lab we used, and that resulted in a mistake. We crash-tested car seats at speeds that far exceeded what we thought we were testing. The lessons that we learned from our mistake are that, when we’re attempting new testing, we want to do more research and bring in a lot of outside experts to help us craft the new tests. That is what we plan on doing. The thought was that maybe we were too insular with that test. We have a long history of crash-testing car seats, not the kind of testing that we tried this time, a side-impact test. So, moving forward, we will be involving more experts to help us when we’re testing products in a new way.

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[amazon_link id=”B003I7HS3Y” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ][/amazon_link]ANDELMAN: So this was different testing than had been done previously.

KLEMAN: Right. We were attempting a side impact crash test that we had not attempted before with child seats. The government was charged with pursuing this kind of test years ago and hadn’t done anything about it. So I think the intent was honest and right, but the results, unfortunately, were not what we wanted.

ANDELMAN: Did CR test at a higher rate of speed?

KLEMAN: Yes. We thought we were testing a side impact at 38 mph. It turned out that the crash speed was roughly double that so that invalidated our car seat test.

I do have to say that as soon as we found out that there was a mistake, we pulled down the story from our website. The president wrote a letter that we sent to the 7 or 8 million subscribers we have to both the magazine and the website and our other publications. We wrote a story in the magazine about what went wrong, and we have done many interviews talking to the press about what happened as well. The result is that we did not have subscribers leaving us in droves. We saw not even a blip, not even a dip, in subscribership.

I’m very happy to say that I think our readers know that we normally don’t make mistakes and that we’re very sorry about this and that we learned from what we did. So there hasn’t been a lot of fallout, I’m happy to say.

ANDELMAN: You and I have been with some large institutional publications over the years, and there tends to be a bit of initial reluctance, institutional stubbornness, at first when someone catches a mistake. There was a little sense that Consumer Reports took a little while to acknowledge the mistake. On the other hand, with this kind of testing, I don’t know how quickly you can act on that without going back and checking everything. Is that safe to say?

KLEMAN: Well, let me say that with us, there was no hesitation. The government tried the tests that we did and as soon as the government said, “Hey, listen, we’re not finding the results that you are,” we met with them, we retested, and within a day, we had pulled the story. So I would not say that there was hesitation on our part or yes, it’s right or whatever. If a manufacturer for any test project questions what we do, we gladly bring them in to our headquarters here in Yonkers and show them the results of all the tests for their product. So we are very open to share how we tested and what the results are.

ANDELMAN: There was a particular manufacturer that was affected by this, wasn’t there?

KLEMAN: There were a few manufacturers. There were several car seats for which we said these do not perform well in the test that we did. There were two car seats for which we asked for a recall. Again, we are in the process of retesting all the seats that we tested, so we’re about to come out with new information as soon as we have check-tested the current test that we’re doing.

ANDELMAN: I was going to ask you how long before the magazine would do another review of child safety seats. Again, other publications would have this experience and would be like they’re not gonna touch that with a ten-foot pole. Consumer Reports has a slightly different obligation from its mission, right?

KLEMAN: Yeah. Our only constituents are consumers, and Consumer Reports is all about product safety. It’s obviously imperative that whatever we do, we do it right, but we cannot shy away from testing child safety seats or anything.

ANDELMAN: Are there particular editorial safeguards that have been put in place to try to prevent something like this from happening again?

KLEMAN: The way that we write stories and research reports here, we do everything as part of a team. When we work together at our various newspapers, it’s the reporter and it’s the editor, and you often do your own check testing of the facts and bam, it goes into the newspaper. Here, again, everything involves a team such that there’s a tester, a main tester, a project leader, and a technician, and there’s a reporter and there’s an editor, and there might be a survey researcher, and there’s a facts checker. The safeguards that we’ve implemented affect the whole team and how the team works. And, again, a lot of it is when we do new kinds of testing, okay, what is everything we know out there about the kind of testing that already exists, and what experts should we call in to talk to us about the new way we’re considering testing, and all that kind of stuff. So that is the model that we’re using to proceed.

ANDELMAN: You were promoted to editor-in-chief not too long after all this kind of broke. How do you get back to the mission of the magazine after an incident like this and restore staff morale, which I’m sure must have been a little upended?

KLEMAN: This experience caused so much soul-searching for our organization. Of course, we took it hugely seriously. I think the best way to move beyond something like this is to acknowledge the mistakes that we made, to be very clear about what we are doing such that this doesn’t happen again and to focus on the new work because, as you said, we can’t stop testing, we can’t be afraid to test, but we have to continue and do it right. So I feel good about where we are now in that we’re moving on to all kinds of testing, and we’re continuing with, there’s kind of flagship tests for which we’re known, and I feel that we’re getting beyond it.

ANDELMAN: You’ll be happy to know that we’re beyond that topic now. Let me ask you about a different kind of testing, something that’s really come into the public conscience the last couple of months, and that is tainted food from overseas, in particular, China. Is that something that Consumer Reports can and will deal with, or is that beyond the scope of what you guys do?

KLEMAN: No. It’s absolutely something that we’re dealing with. Let me say that, several years ago, we put out a report called “Hazard in Aisle Five” that took a look at imports, especially imports from China, and we didn’t look at food specifically, although as you noted, that’s clearly part of the mix now. But we were looking at the Consumer Product Safety Commission and what they spot-check and what they’re missing and why that’s happening. We sent shoppers out throughout the country pulling products off dollar store shelves and discount store shelves that looked iffy and brought them back to our labs and tested or otherwise examined them. My favorite item that we found in that investigation was “Baby’s First Box Cutters.” The label said, “Not for children under three years old,” but these were actual box cutters! One that was pink and one that was blue. The question is why is that stuff being sold?

ANDELMAN: Whose idea was that? Whose idea was children’s box cutters?

KLEMAN: I don’t know, but all of which is to say we’ve really been looking at the quality of products on the shelves for a long time, and we’re definitely going to be continuing. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, it’s been Consumers Union’s judgment that they’re not asking for enough money to do the job that they need to do. In an era where so many products are regulated by a kind of voluntary standard and not mandatory standards, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s attitude is, “Oh, it’s a voluntary standard, you can’t expect us to oversee everything.” That’s not good enough for consumers, and we’re really seeing the fallout of that now.

ANDELMAN: My sense of it is, and I’m curious for your opinion on this, is that the government has rules in place, but the government has chosen to turn a blind eye, and not enforce. We’re in an era, and I’m not gonna mention political parties, but it seems like we’re in an era where enforcing those rules is not all that important.

KLEMAN: I can kind of understand the mentality that it’s a lot easier to get people to abide by rules when they’re part of making the rules. So when you get a bunch of manufacturers together and say, “What are the minimum standards that these products need to adhere to?” that can be a friendlier way than saying, “You will make them this way.” But that said, we had a story recently about ladders that were not safe, six or seven ladders that just failed federal standards. We think that, in many cases, more is needed, and that’s not happening. We think that the Consumer Product Safety Commission needs to be more of a watchdog.

ANDELMAN: Do you think that’s gonna happen anytime soon?

KLEMAN: I’m not optimistic.

ANDELMAN: Kim, you’re a woman with excellent investigative reporting credentials, editing credentials. What makes Consumer Reports the right place for you?

KLEMAN: I love Consumer Reports for a number of different reasons. The first is that our only constituent is the consumer. We have a very different model than most other magazines out there in that I don’t have to worry about our advertisers. Consumer Reports makes its own news, which is very exciting. The kinds of things that we’re reporting about and that we find, nobody else can tell people, such as we just did a story in our August issue, a big package about kitchens. And you think, well, what can be exciting about testing dishwashers and ranges and that kind of thing, but once again, we found that those pricey brands that cost you thousands and thousands of dollars for the chi-chi name are actually worse performers than something that can save you hundreds of dollars. That’s kind of a classic Consumer Reports story. And it’s something that we can tell people not only what to buy but what not to buy and why you don’t want to buy this kind or this brand. And I think that’s hugely empowering to people.

What I want to do as editor is elevate service journalism even higher. That’s what we are all about here. I think it’s a very noble calling. I think journalists kind of look at service journalism as, “Maybe that’s where you start out to cut your teeth,” but I want to move on to something bigger and better. There are great stories in service journalism, especially as we conceive it here, which is what is happening right, what is happening wrong, why this stuff should be off the shelf, and that kind of thing. So all of that is why I’m really excited to be here.

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[amazon_link id=”B0001FAX38″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ][/amazon_link]I can segue into some of the things that I want to do as the new editor here, one of which includes telling people a little bit more about how we test because it is very different than other publications. It’s not kind of quickly eyeballing a digital camera or a kitchen appliance and “Yeah, yeah, this one looks good.” It’s dozens and hundreds of tests per model. It’s staining countertops and flooring material with tar and ballpoint pen. It’s just great testing to let you know what really holds up and what doesn’t. We’ve always had a survey research component to whatever we do. People talk about community as it applies to the web, and that’s kind of the new terminology out there when it comes to the web, but we’ve been doing that in the magazine for decades and decades. We send out an annual questionnaire that is second most in size only to the U.S. Census where we get information year after year. “What do you own, Mr. Andelman? Has it needed a major repair lately? When did you buy it?” We have this incredible stockpile of reliability information on product after product. That kind of information allows us to say, “This brand is gonna be good for you and this brand has been really iffy, especially in the last several years.” And “What’s going on with this brand? Stay away from these guys.” So it’s my job as editor to bring to the fore our testing, our survey research work, great service journalism, and in all of that, investigative reporting. We have a history of that. I think we need to continue that in a big way.

ANDELMAN: Is there new ground or new journalistic techniques, for example, to be covered or exploited by the magazine in doing this?

KLEMAN: Well, every one of our best stories, I think, involves a significant investigative reporting component, a significant testing component, and a survey component. And when we can combine the three, it’s just a home run. I don’t know if I’m answering your question, but what we like to do is employ all of our kind of powerhouses of information for our reports. That said, that’s hard for a lot of publications to copy because there’s a certain way you have to test stuff in order for it to be credible and valid. So it’s a model that works very well for us because we’re fortunate enough to have the resources. I’m not sure everybody could replicate that.

ANDELMAN: Newspapers are cutting back like crazy. They’re cutting back their arts coverage. It’s starting to bleed over into investigative reporting. As such, what’s the environment like for investigative reporting at Consumer Reports? Are you picking up staff? Are you finding that skilled investigative reporters who might not have been interested in service in the past are coming around saying maybe I ought to give this a try?

KLEMAN: Let me say that we seem to be zigging when everybody else is zagging. Our subscriptions have been increasing. We have doubled our newsstand sales in the past three years. We are hiring people. We have a magazine that’s fifth or sixth largest in the nation with 4.3 million subscribers. We have the world’s largest paid subscription website, which will hit 3 million paid subscribers this fall. And our books are flourishing. We launched a new magazine called Shop Smart for people on the go who maybe don’t have time to pour through all the ratings, the best three or whatever. So that tells me that we’re doing something right and that the unique information we have, people want. So I guess my first charge as editor is not to blow it.

ANDELMAN: What are the hot new products drawing the magazine’s attention? Is it too soon to ask if you guys have taken a hard look at the iPhone yet?

KLEMAN: We have, in one of our latest issues, our first look at the iPhone, and you’ll see that online as well. But we’re doing ongoing testing of the iPhone to address the battery issues that have come to light, and our first evaluation of the iPhone included the fact that, as a phone, we’re not hugely impressed. So we’re hearing what readers are saying and incorporating some of that information into our testing. It’s helping us to inform.

ANDELMAN: Are there other products or categories of the moment that are drawing your attention?

KLEMAN: The way that we have organized our staff, our editorial staff, is into five franchises that are our biggest coverage areas. We have a staff that is always testing cars; obviously, one of our hugest bread and butter franchises. We have the home franchise that covers more than a hundred different appliances and other products including yard products, mowers, tractors, string trimmers. We have our finance franchise that oversees shopping and money and other personal finance issues including a lot of surveys on best places to buy electronics or the fact that just forego the extended warranty based on our extensive survey of what breaks and when. That’s the finance franchise. We have a health franchise that covers everything from exercise equipment to multivitamins and big issues of healthcare and what’s going on in the nation. And lastly, we have our electronics franchise: TVs, digital cameras, cell phones, and all the rest. So you ask what’s hot. There are products within those franchises that we test on a continual basis. And the magazine takes a snapshot of those tests during peak buying season, and the web has those ongoing tests as well such that whenever your refrigerator happens to break and you need something now, you go to our website, and there’s up-to-date information.

ANDELMAN: It’s interesting because you mention that both the website and the print version are growing, which is kind of an anomaly these days. Most publications, it seems, their web site is growing, and their print edition is either static or dropping. Where do you think the balance will be between the two in five years?

KLEMAN: It’s interesting that you would think that there would be maybe more people who are dual subscribers. We’re finding that of the 4.3 million print subscribers and the 2.8 million web subscribers, we have about a 500,000 overlap. Five hundred thousand people take both the print and the web subscription. These products, especially, are kind of growing into their own. The web is for pure researchers. “The refrigerator broke last night, help me get a new one today.” Just the facts, that kind of thing. The magazine has to offer the complete buying experience for somebody who is in the market for a product, but it also has to be a good read, in my opinion. And it has to offer a good complement, a good mix. We have to offer enough information about big- ticket products, if somebody’s in the market for a car or a lawnmower or some major appliance. We also have to offer supermarket products, things that everybody wants. We have to offer information for people who might already have the big appliance but need to know how to keep it clean or how to keep it running properly, that kind of thing. We have to offer really good investigative reports, things that you go to a magazine to read and not necessarily the web. We think that the products now are different. There is unique content that goes to the web first or the web only. Likewise with the magazine. Increasingly, we will distinguish those products so that they’re increasingly a different experience.

ANDELMAN: Kim, finally, let’s look ahead for you. You’ve done newspapers. You’ve been at the magazine, obviously just the beginning of your stint as editor-in-chief there. But five years from now, where will you be? What other kind of things do you want to do?

KLEMAN: Well, I want to be employed. I want to do this job right. Right now, I’ve been in this position about three months. I’m looking to make this magazine the best read that it can be, just the absolute premier testing and research publication and consumer journalism publication it can be. So I am very happy now. I think I could probably end my career 25 years from now in this position and be wildly happy. And I just hope that our subscribers are happy and my boss is happy. I hope to see myself here because I’ve never had a job that I’ve loved so much.

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Bob Andelman is the host and producer of Mr. Media® Interviews. He is also the author or co-author of 16 books, including The Wawa Way with Howard Stoeckel, Building Atlanta with Herman J. Russell, Fans Not Customers with Vernon W. Hill, founder of Commerce Bank and Metro Bank UK, Mind Over Business with Ken Baum, The Consulate with Thomas R. Stutler, The Profiler with Pat Brown, Built From Scratch with the founders of The Home Depot, The Profit Zone with Adrian Slywotzky, Mean Business with Albert J. Dunlap, and Will Eisner: A Spirited Life. Click here to see Bob Andelman's Amazon Central author page. He is a member in good standing of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (member page).