Pioneers in Consumer Journalism

The birth and growth of "News You Can Use."

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From the "News-Lines" department of 1940 to the consumer-focused website of today, dispensing information helpful to individual readers—"News You Can Use"—has been a U.S. News cornerstone. But as our readership has expanded over the years, so has the nature of the help we provide.

In the early days, the magazine's target reader was a tough-minded male who spent his days stoking the fires of capitalism. His time was limited and his tolerance for ambiguity zero. Thus, "News-Lines" tersely explained, in single-paragraph bursts, "What you as a business man CAN and CANNOT do as a result of Federal court and administrative decisions." It didn't just advise him on the job, either. The magazine's very first issue reassured him that he could vacation in Bermuda, the Bahamas, "or other belligerent islands in the West Indies without violating the Neutrality Act." Whew.

"News You Can Use," which showed up in 1952, had broader scope. The feature was styled like a newsletter to give it a snappy, deadline feel, but most of the items consisted of tips that could be filed and endlessly recycled: Conquer crab grass. Be careful with fireworks. Keep the moths out of stored woolens. "With the hurricane season at hand, you may want to note precautions to take," the magazine advised in 1958. "Plan on how to protect yourself if the storm should hit," it repeated in 1968. "The hurricane season is officially here," we said again in 1978. "Now through October is hurricane season," we reminded in 1985.

A fresher, less soporific version was in order. Mortimer Zuckerman's purchase of the magazine in 1984 provided an opportunity. An expanded "News You Can Use" section would survey health, personal finance, travel, technology, and careers with energy and imagination. "Not fluff and showbiz and gossip but stuff you can really use," then Managing Editor Peter Bernstein recalls arguing. The idea was to create a different identity for the magazine.

Power tools. The notion didn't go down easily. "Real journalists don't do 'News You Can Use,' " Bernstein recalls some editors saying. "Cordless power tools?" Editor David Gergen asked incredulously when a story on the new devices was proposed a few years later. "Who would want to read about cordless power tools?" Besides, critics argued, a new section would siphon off pages from domestic and foreign news. But the "News You Can Use" section was approved, kicking off in 1987 with a survivor's guide to singlehood—"Living Alone and Learning to Love It."

Consumer journalism is like chess—easy to do, but, as evidenced by the old newsletter, hard to do well. Yet the magazine managed to turn out useful stories that were also timely, deeply reported, and fun to read. "20 Medical Stories You May Have Missed," in 1992, cited a study showing that steroid and salt water injections had the same noneffect on back pain. Another reported on the malnutrition that resulted from parents giving their children very low-fat diets. In 2005, "How to Be a Smart Patient" advised readers how to extract good information from the dross on the Web. The magazine built an influential franchise with "America's Best Colleges"; it was followed by "America's Best Hospitals" and "America's Best Health Plans."

Continually expanding our coverage of personal finance, we even seemed to anticipate the current economic meltdown. A 1997 story about subprime mortgages ("Easy Money: A little thing like bad credit won't cost you a mortgage loan") stated: "Aggressive loan servicing prevents most loans from deteriorating to the point of foreclosure. At least it has so far."

There was also a legendary "oops" moment. In 1989, we wrote that yeast infections from contaminated dentures could be avoided by soaking them in bleach, dish detergent, and water. A reader wrote to complain that the mixture had overcome Paco, his cherished parrot. And he was not happy. "I remember this so, so well," says R. Tom Glass, the dental professor who created the solution. Combining bleach with dish detergent produced ammonia fumes. Glass, it turned out, had stipulated dishwasher detergent. The parrot recovered.