Wanted: Consumer journalism

The Israeli media must rise to the challenge of fighting the consumer war – even if it means starting some new initiatives

June 19, 2011 21:58
cottage cheese

cottage cheese 311 R. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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Many a moon ago, when I was employed at Fox News in New York, I had the privilege of working with many gifted people, both in front of and behind the camera. One of the people I never got to work with directly was Neil Cavuto, Fox’s head business honcho, and I regret that. Not only is Neil a great person to work for (according to every person on his team I knew) but he has a rare gift which is overlooked by many in the news industry: he knows how to explain financial matters in ways everyone can understand.

Not only that, Cavuto knows how to conduct an interview with top financial players and get the bottom line out of them.

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The reason I’m mentioning this is that it should be clear to everyone following the coverage of the “cottage cheese uprising” over the past week or so that the Israel media desperately needs a Neil Cavuto, and perhaps much more.

Since this consumer-organized boycott of cottage cheese began, we have been inundated with articles, TV packages and political statements about how it started, where it’s headed and so on.

But after following the various reports, I have yet to see any which really explains the phenomenon in a way that the average man can comprehend.

To be fair, it’s important to point out the paradox of financial news. On one hand, it’s complicated, but on the other it can be the most important news of the day, as these stories can often affect people’s wallets. That’s something every good newsperson knows should be reported. The reason it’s complicated is obvious. Explaining any business market in layman’s terms is not easy. There are dozens of factors and statistics involved. Throw in complex terminology and acronyms like interest rates, currency values and GDP, and you’ve lost most of your readers/viewers before you even get started.

Journalists must sift through the numbers and jargon while clarifying what they mean to the reader. One of the Israeli papers splashed a headline on its front page this past weekend: “Israel is more expensive than the US by 30%.”

After reading the article, which was based on data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD), I found the headline to be inaccurate.

The OECD’s report measures how much it costs to live in member countries based on the price of certain food and housing prices. If anything, the 30% figure should be higher, as transportation costs in Israel (i.e. gas, cars, public transportation etc.) are considerably higher than in the US. Another article I read asserts that the problem is not the prices for goods & services, but the fact that in Israel wages are relatively lower than in other European countries, and that adjusting incomes is an easier task than adjusting prices.

This is an oxymoron disguised as news. It stands to reason that if employers, including manufacturers, are forced to increase wages, they’ll have to raise the prices of their products to maintain their profit margin. The folks who’ll be affected by this half-baked concept will be the seniors and unemployed, who won’t get more money but will be paying more for products.

The term “bottom line” is the key to the whole issue – the profits for the manufacturers and the supply chain (i.e. delivery companies, retailers etc.) and the government’s income from taxes. It’s in everyone’s interest to keep prices high – except for the customer. Simply put, the more consumers are charged, the more revenue everyone gets, including our government ministries. While there is plenty of anger toward the manufacturers, in a “free market” economy it’s hard to tell a company it must lower its profit margin. The government should be a different story.

The wise men and women in Jerusalem work for the people, but when it comes to financial issues they seem to forget that. It was recently reported that the Treasury took in NIS 91 billion in taxes for the first five months of 2011 –10 billion more than for the same period last year, and 1.5 billion more than it projected.

Yet the VAT is a whopping 16%.

There would be riots in the streets if any state in the US had such a rate. The Israeli media must rise to the challenge of fighting the consumer war – even if it means starting some new initiatives. Boycotting is a great way of affecting manufacturers, but let’s face it, they have us over a barrel, especially if the government remains passive. This leaves only one real option: targeting the retailers. There might not be a lot of manufacturers in Israel, but there are many, many stores selling the same products, and this is where buyers have real power.

Customers must have the information laid out in an easy-to-understand and search format. If someone wants to buy a new computer, there needs to be a publication or website which will explain, not just where they can get the best deal, but also explain a product’s strengths and weaknesses, while supplying an impartial professional evaluation.

Retailers who charge exorbitant amounts will begin to think twice before they mark up; if they don’t reduce their profit margin, they will be out of business.

It’s as simple as that.

In addition, our lawmakers must be forced to explain to the Israeli people why they feel overflowing treasury coffers is more important than the ever-growing number of people living below the poverty line due to high taxes. When they tell of their proposed changes, they must be publicized and followed up on for all consumers to read.

This kind of information should not be relegated to a weekly supplement;it must be made available online on a regular, constantly updated basis. With media outlets always looking for new sources of income, you’d think someone would pounce on the opportunity. Who knows, maybe someone will take up the challenge and transform the “cottage cheese uprising” into an all-out consumer revolution.

It’s about financial activism, and making a better life for ourselves. I believe that’s something Neil Cavuto would appreciate.

The writer is an independent media consultant and a former producer at the Fox News Channel in New York.


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