Business reporter Ken Bensinger (Los Angeles Times )
NEW YORK — "Wheels of Fortune," the Los Angeles Times series that exposed the world of Buy Here Pay Here car dealers, was honored with a Gerald Loeb award at a ceremony here Tuesday night.
The Wheels series by Business reporter Ken Bensinger won in the Large Newspapers category, eclipsing two entries from the Wall Street Journal and one from the New York Times in that competition.
Bensinger's stories explained the shrewd business model that underpins Buy Here Pay Here. The buyers are people who need cars to get to work but whose credit is so poor they can't qualify for traditional loans. Buy Here Pay Here dealers sell them clunkers at prices often double the book value, financed at interest rates as high as 30%. When customers default, as they frequently do, the dealers simply repossess the cars and sell them again.
To report the stories, Bensinger scoured court records, interviewed customers and dealers, and talked his way into a Buy Here Pay Here convention. He filed public records requests with state and federal regulators, only to find that most of them did not even track the Buy Here Pay Here business.
The series prompted editorials in other newspapers, follow-up articles in dozens of publications and the beginnings of change: The nation's largest low-income car ownership program has pledged to open three locations in Southern California this year, and the new head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has vowed to crack down on the industry. Three separate bills to address Buy Here Pay Here industry practices are making their way through the California Legislature.
Times editor Davan Maharaj said the series demonstrated the importance of deeply reported journalism.
"Most Americans need cars to get a job and keep it, and for those who don't have a lot of money or decent credit, it's a daunting challenge," Maharaj said. "Ken Bensinger showed how many of these people bought cars from dealers who took advantage of their desperation. But for Ken, their stories would not have been told."
This was the second Loeb award for Bensinger, who shared the Beat Reporting award with Times reporter Ralph Vartabedian in 2010 for their hard-hitting coverage of sudden-acceleration problems in Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles.