Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
What Scribd’s growing pains mean for the future of digital content subscription models
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Sept. 19, 2011, noon

Truth-O-Meter, franchised: PolitiFact places its bets on expanding to states

In its expansion, PolitiFact sets its sights on becoming an Associated Press for fact-checking.

Four years is a long time to be setting pants on fire.

It was August 2007 when PolitiFact officially launched its fact-checking mission and introduced the world to the Truth-o-Meter, giving new weight to the childhood warning of “pants on fire.” Over the years more than 4,000 statements have gone through the meter, registering claims on health care, the national debt, Slim Jims, and the truthiness of Fox News.

Fact-checking has seen an interesting progression in recent years, evolving into a stand-alone form of news — as evidenced not just by PolitiFact (a project of the St. Petersburg Times) but also by Factcheck.org, and NewsTrust’s new TruthSquad site. Instead of simply being an ingredient in reporting, fact-checking went front and center, working as the main content for a site or in concert with other stories. And PolitiFact, for its part, was seen as a method of journalism that strived to inform the public on issues through sustained investigation of claims from public officials on a national level: the president, Congress, and the talking heads who circle both.

But PolitiFact’s future may actually exist on the state level — as something of a journalistic franchise that supports local newspapers while expanding PolitiFact’s coverage for a national audience.

“I’ve come to think of PolitiFact as a true cooperative in the model of the Associated Press — but a 21st-century version of the Associated Press, where we are sharing all our fact-checking among all our partners and our partners are benefiting from that,” said Bill Adair, Washington bureau chief for the St. Petersburg Times and PolitiFact’s editor.

PolitiFact expanded its reach to the state level through partnering with newspapers, something akin to setting up a Truth-O-Meter machine at each outlet staffed by the paper. The papers, which include the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Austin American Statesman, The Providence Journal, and The Newark Star-Ledger, provide the manpower — usually a few reporters and an editor to perform research. The papers pay around $1,000 a month, Adair said, which includes a licensing and hosting fee paid to PolitiFact.

For PolitiFact, while that arrangement yields a source of revenue, it also creates a broad network that can be called on for tapping into statewide stories that go national, like, say, PolitiFact Texas’s coverage of Rick Perry. In many cases, not only does PolitiFact.com see a traffic bump, but so do the newspapers, which supplement their PolitFact pages with their own political coverage.

Given that, it should be no surprise that PolitiFact wants to expand further in the next few months. In many cases, Adair said, the partnerships start after interested newspapers contact PolitiFact. “We want to continue to grow into more states,” he said. “Our biggest goal now is to find partners in big states where we don’t have anybody: California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York.”

At the state level, the papers get a well-known (and Pulitzer-winning) mechanism to help their own political reporting. Many papers’ sites place a PolitFact widget or feature prominently, and PolitiFact pieces will also appear in print. The biggest commitment (aside from the money, of course) is the people: A newsroom has to be willing to part with a reporter or two. And that might be for the best, considering the risk a State House reporter faces of getting left out in the cold after giving a politician a “Pants on Fire.”

I spoke to Greg Borowski of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, editor of PolitiFact Wisconsin, and he said the separation has been a help to both staffs. “They have the ability as beat reporters, when a politician says, ‘You gave me a Pants-on-Fire and now you want me to give you a tip on this or interview on that,’ to say there’s a little bit of distinction there — which I think helps both [staffs],” he said.

The Journal Sentinel has had the PolitiFact desk for about a year. The reporters — there are two full-time and one part-time PolitiFact staffers — have worked for the paper for several years, and that experience is handy when vetting claims from politicians, Borowski said.

Borowski sees its PolitiFact desk as an amplified, and evergreen, version of the typical newspaper “ad watch” that gets rolled out during campaign season. But the Truth-O-Meter method is more in-depth, and, thanks to the web, has a longer shelf life. The benefits to the paper, again, are more eyeballs on their work — and more traffic during high-profile stories like the stand-off between Republican governor Scott Walker and Democrats in the state legislature. “Wisconsin has been a very politicized state, and as things broke with Governor Walker…we were grateful to have it,” Borowski said.

And readers have been happy, too, he said. What’s been most surprising, Borowski said, is that readers picked up on the PolitiFact method quickly, emailing in statements to be fact-checked along with a trail of links for the paper to check out. In that way, PolitiFact has also helped to increase engagement with readers at the Journal Sentinel, Borowski said. “We can tell we’ve struck a good nerve with readers who enjoy it.”

Image from Gregor Smith used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 19, 2011, noon
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
What Scribd’s growing pains mean for the future of digital content subscription models
It turns out that ebook subscription models don’t work very well when people read too much. So what happens next?
How research (and PowerPoints) became the backbone of National Journal’s membership program
“We no longer look at National Journal simply as a news source, but as a collection of resources, as well as a collection of experts we can turn to on occasion.”
Added value: How Harvard Business Review thinks it can add subscribers while getting more expensive
By creating new products and taking advantage of its extensive archives, HBR’s plan is to both offer more to and ask more of subscribers.
What to read next
2843
tweets
A blow for mobile advertising: The next version of Safari will let users block ads on iPhones and iPads
Think making money on mobile advertising is hard now? Think how much more difficult it will be with a significant share of your audience is blocking all your ads — all with a simple download from the App Store.
1763For news organizations, this was the most important set of Apple announcements in years
A new Flipboard-clone with massive potential reach, R.I.P. Newsstand, and news stories embedded deeper inside iOS — it was a big day for news on iPhones and iPads.
762Newsonomics: 10 numbers that define the news business today
From video to social, from mobile to paywalls — these data points help define where we are in the “future of news” today, like it or not.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
Texas Tribune
The Globe and Mail
The New York Times
Current TV
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
New York
Upworthy
DocumentCloud
New West
Sports Illustrated
Demand Media
El Faro