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March 24, 2010, 5 a.m.

FairWarning: A beat-focused model for a nonprofit investigative startup

It’s a cliché because it’s true: Investigative reporting is the core of the journalism that democracy requires to thrive. It’s good news, then, that this morning brings the launch of another nonprofit news outlet focused solely on I-reporting — this one, under the direction of a pair of former Los Angeles Times reporters. FairWarning aims, like its fellow investigative outfits, “to provide robust, public interest journalism”; unlike its fellow outlets, though, the site has carved a concentrated focus within its broader mission: It will cover, exclusively, consumer-driven issues of heath, safety, and corporate conduct.

“I always felt like, even back when times were fatter and more prosperous, there wasn’t enough of this work being done in traditional media,” says Myron Levin, a veteran consumer-interest investigative reporter and FairWarning’s founder and editor. “These stories are a little bit technical; to some people they’re a little bit boring. They’re not sexy, usually.” What they are, though, is important. FairWarning’s name, Levin told me, is meant to evoke “the shared responsibility between consumers and businesses” when it comes to health and safety. And its goal, he says, is “to provide a flow for this kind of news and information, and to see it reach a wider audience.”

In terms of the content mix it offers, FairWarning is akin to its counterpart outlets. In addition to deep-dive treatments of health and safety issues (currently: a spotlight on the trail of victims of a combustible line of pickup trucks; an examination of undercounting and cheating in workplace injury reports; and a look at the politics of regulating all-terrain vehicles to minimize injuries and deaths), the site has a blog, News and Notes, which will contain summaries of stories and more personalized takes on their findings. Levin and Joanna Lin, the site’s assistant editor, also plan to offer daily aggregations of other outlets’ investigations in the health-and-safety arena — the whole do what you do best and link to the rest idea — and of legal and regulatory news more generally. It’s about “creating a portal,” says Lin, “where people can find this information, even if we weren’t the producers of it.”

Social media, it almost goes without saying, will play a role in that creation. FairWarning has a Twitter feed and a Facebook page — the followers are few at this point, but the hope is to build audiences on them over time. At the same time, “I know there are a lot of people — especially the people who would benefit from the information in our stories — who aren’t on Twitter or Facebook,” Lin told me. “So we’re still looking to try to find as many ways as we can to reach them. If they’re reading newspapers, we want to be in newspapers. If they’re on Twitter, we want to be on Twitter. For us, the medium is secondary to just getting the message across.”

Structurally, in other words, FairWarning is a concentrated version of the cross-platform strategies employed by many of the nonprofit outfits that are emerging to fill the void left as traditional investigative teams have disintegrated. It differs from those other outlets, though, not only in size, but in scope. Generally, investigative startups focus on the broad universe of investigative reporting, narrowing their coverage (or not) according to geographical interests — national (ProPublica), regional (California Watch), local (Voice of San Diego) — more than anything else. Reporters may have beats within their respective newsrooms, but overall, the outlets aim to produce “investigations in the public interest” that are aimed at a particular public.

FairWarning marks a move from that model. It defines itself not according to a geographical area, but rather to a rhetorical one. It’s a beat unto itself.

Because of that, collaboration and partnerships will be key. Which can be something of a challenge. “There’s kind of a balance we’re trying to strike,” Lin says. “We’re trying to appeal to people at smaller papers, because we think our stuff will be of interest to their readers — but a lot of these papers are saying, ‘Well, our readers only care about things in this specific region.’ So we’re trying to work around that.”

An added challenge: The staff doing that work is — for now, anyway — small (or, in startupese, nimble). Levin and Lin share a small office in Sherman Oaks, and they’re assisted by three part-time researcher-reporters — journalism masters’ students — who work remotely: Bridget Huber and Jill Replogle from UC Berkeley, and Matthew Richmond from USC. (The outlet turned to students not only for economic reasons, but also because, as Lin puts it, “the industry has a responsibility for its own survival, really, to bring up a new generation of reporters.”) Diana Hoff, administrator of the Portland-based Renaissance Foundation, one of FairWarning’s funders, provides business-side assistance, and an all-star board — including Margaret Engel, Charles Lewis, Vernon Loeb, Bill Marimow, and Henry Weinstein — provide insight and oversight.

FairWarning also has a broad initial slate of financial supporters. The Charles Evans Foundation is the outfit’s primary funder, but FairWarning also receives assistance from, in addition to Renaissance, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism, Public Welfare, and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University’s School of Communication. “We’ve lucked out, because there’s so many people with their hands out right now, trying to get these journalism projects going,” Levin notes. And there’s a “Contribute” section on FairWarning.org to give readers the option of helping out. Still, that nagging question — how will we pay for it? — will be a constant one, and one FairWarning will have to address even as it sets about telling stories and building a brand. Realistically, Levin says, “we have about a year’s money. We’re not out of the woods.”

POSTED     March 24, 2010, 5 a.m.
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