PHILADELPHIA — Chris Morran, deputy editor of the piercing blog Consumerist.com, awakes each morning and doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. He can see the Comcast Center from the roof of his Philadelphia row house.
Morran has written almost 9,000 stories for the online publication, the so-called “TMZ of consumer news” that also brands itself as the place where “shoppers bite back.”
Two hundred to three hundred of those articles — at least, Morran says — have been on Comcast consumer-related topics, such as overbilling or customers frozen out of their accounts.
Customer service generally has been a highly sensitive issue at Comcast and particularly so right now, as the Philadelphia company seeks to acquire Time Warner Cable for $45.2 billion, which will considerably broaden its scope.
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Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts recently told Wall Street analysts the company had to do more to please its customers, saying their experience should be Comcast’s best product.
So it comes as a surprise to many people — including those at Comcast — that Morran has been doing his consumer muckraking on the region’s largest publicly traded company and the nation’s largest cable-TV company from right in Comcast’s hometown.
Morran says he hasn’t hidden the fact he’s banging out his stories in Philadelphia. He sprinkles the pieces with references to the city or the Phillies or walking past the Comcast Center.
But he also hardly seems in awe of the cable giant and takes some delight in knowing that people at the Comcast Center follow his stories — he knows because they email him — even if they don’t know he’s only a 20-minute walk away.
As for personal encounters with Comcast employees, the single, 38-year-old Morran hasn’t had any. “I’ve been on a lot of dates, and I’ve miraculously never even met someone who worked at Comcast,” he said in a recent interview.
In fact, he was only recently invited to Comcast headquarters for interviews, after his latest customer-service tale of woe went viral.
That was the story of Conal O’Rourke, the Northern California man who says he was fired from PricewaterhouseCoopers after complaining to Comcast executives in Philadelphia about $312.50 in overcharges on his Comcast bill.
O’Rourke’s California attorney sent Morran an email. Morran checked it out — “we do get a lot of crank email,” he acknowledged — and considered it legitimate. He wrote the O’Rourke piece without using O’Rourke’s last name.
Once posted, the story produced hundreds of thousands of page views for the Consumerist website and about 40,000 likes on the Consumerist’s Facebook page.
Ars Technica, which is owned by upscale magazine publisher Condé Nast and also is a Comcast antagonist as it relates to customer service, picked up the story and interviewed O’Rourke. Its O’Rourke story generated an additional 500,000 views.
Comcast apologized to O’Rourke for its customer service but says it had nothing to do with his firing.
Comcast also said it did not feel it was appropriate to comment on whether it thought Morran, or the Consumerist, was fair in its coverage. But it also had nothing negative to say about the effusively productive and unflinchingly steadfast Morran.
Said spokeswoman Jenni Moyer: “We work with Chris and the Consumerist, as we do with all journalists, to make sure he has accurate and timely information. We also have invited Chris to come to the Comcast Center at any time to learn more about Comcast, including what we’re doing to improve the customer experience.”
Morran, who looks like Paul Giamatti and honed his journalism at New York celebrity magazines, was padding around his house on a recent day, barefoot and drinking a can of Mountain Dew.
His background is eclectic. He graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in architecture and first worked in the New York publishing business. He is the author of two books on “slackers,” the folks who manage to survive without doing much of anything. The title of one book: Hardly Working: The Overachieving Underperformer’s Guide to Doing as Little as Possible in the Office.”
Morran returned to the Philadelphia area in 2011 after walking away from the celebrity news business to do something more substantial — work for the Consumerist, the breaking-news blog of Consumer Reports magazine.
The nonprofit Consumers Union, which publishes the research-based Consumer Reports, acquired the Consumerist from Gawker Media in 2009. At the time, the Consumerist had monthly traffic of about 10 million page views. It has comparable traffic now.
The Consumerist’s newsroom consists of five editorial staffers, sprinkled in Albany and Brooklyn, N.Y.; Washington, D.C.; and Philadelphia.
As part of being owned by a nonprofit, the Consumerist does not sell advertisements, which gives it some freedom to take on a heavy advertiser like Comcast.
Consumers Union has publicly opposed Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable, a deal under review by federal and state regulatory agencies.
The Consumerist also opposes the Comcast/Time Warner Cable deal. But Morran said the blog’s editorial operation is totally separate from the Consumer Reports policy arm.
Generally, Morran said, he has a good working relationship with Comcast, and over the years he has worked with the company to solve the problems of individual Comcast subscribers who contacted him with their problems.
He broadly characterizes his stories as “customer-service horror stories,” “confessions and document leaks from Comcast workers,” and “just general bad behavior by the company.”
As for what motivates him, Morran said: “I have no intention of taking Comcast down. I just want Comcast and the other cable companies to provide better service.”