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.