LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA — As the Los Angeles Times newsroom braced itself for another round of buyouts in 2008, Myron Levin, an investigative reporter who had tracked corporate misconduct and lax government regulation for the paper for years, thought hard about what he wanted to do with his career. He took a few walks around the block, talked it over with some colleagues, and then finally made a decision. He was out.
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Yet several years later, Levin is still a consumer watchdog, reporting the types of stories that leave citizens outraged and industry in a frenzy. He’s just found a new approach.
Levin now heads FairWarning, a modest three-person investigative nonprofit devoted to consumer topics, with an annual budget of around $300,000.
“They are life and limb things,” Levin says. “Injuries, deaths, who is responsible for them and what can be done about them.”
One such story investigated a government-owned company under investigation for allegedly exposing its underpaid prison laborers to “excessive levels of lead and other toxic metals.” Another, based on a leaked PowerPoint presentation, exposed lobbyists’ aggressive plan to counter Oprah Winfrey’s campaign to stop drivers from using cell phones.
Yet as much as Levin likes to focus on reporting, it has become much less a part of his job than it used to be. While at the Times, Levin said that if he wrote a story of some caliber, it would hit the front page of his paper and be syndicated throughout the nation. Now Levin has to worry about everything from marketing the stories to paying the phone bill.
“Even running a tiny pop-stand like ours involves a lot of tasks,” Levin said. “All of us have a lot to things to worry about.”
One of the things about which they worry most is finding partners for their stories.
“No matter what we do, even if it’s really good work, we’re a failure if we don’t get our work co-published by other newspapers or broadcasters,” Levin said.
Fortunately, they seem to have been successful so far. FairWarning’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including Mother Jones, the Dallas Morning News, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and they’re also getting paid for it.
“Our policy is to charge and it’s very important to us on some level that it be acknowledged that there is value here,” Levin said. “But it’s also important to us to generate a revenue stream, not only for the obvious reason that it helps support our operation, but funders and prospective funders are interested in this.”
City: Los Angeles, Calif.Colin Fleming is a contributor to CJR.