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This Week in Review: When fact-checking hits a wall, and a starkly strategic newspaper bankruptcy

Plus: Ideas for newspapers’ reinvention, Apple’s user IDs hacked (maybe), and the rest of the week’s news in media and tech.

When fact-checking hits a wall: Judging from the reaction, last week’s Republican National Convention seems to have been a pivotal moment for the “fact-checking” movement within journalism — though we can’t seem to agree on what exactly that moment means. Rem Rieder of the American Journalism Review celebrated fact-checking journalists’ vigorous response to vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s convention speech as a sort of coming-out party for fact-checking, and Ari Melber at PBS MediaShift contended that its emergence marked a new level of integration of the blogging ethos into political journalism. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein said fact-checkers are giving political reporters a stiffer spine when dealing with politicians’ deception.

At the same time, though, a distinct problem has begun to emerge regarding the newly emboldened political fact-checkers: What happens when the politicians they’re checking don’t care what they say? That’s the scenario currently unfolding between the fact-checkers and (mostly) Republicans, as The New York Times’ Michael Cooper described. Grist’s David Roberts examined the question of what journalists should do next in that situation, arguing that the norm of objectivity leaves them with weak, limited options.

NYU’s Jay Rosen unpacked some of the meaning of this conundrum for journalists and noted that several of them are uncharacteristically pushing back against the politicians, which also means pushing up against the boundaries of their traditional “view from nowhere.” Ezra Klein wrestled publicly with the need to appear fair when fact-checking overwhelmingly deceptive speeches, concluding that “you can look fair, or you can be fair, but you can’t be both.”

Others wondered whether fact-checking is even all that effective in a cynical political world. Reuters’ Jack Shafer said that fact-checking is a noble pursuit, but one that isn’t going to stop politicians from lying or make voters care much about politicians’ deception. Ben Smith of BuzzFeed cautioned fact-checkers not to get co-opted by campaigns and turned into just another part of their rhetorical tug-of-war.

On the other hand, The Guardian’s Emily Bell marveled at the fact that many U.S. organizations are reluctant to give up their “view from nowhere” to buy into fact-checking, and The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan wondered why we’re even having a debate over whether fact-checking is necessary in the first place. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post pushed back against Sullivan’s statement, arguing that no one in the press is really opposed to fact-checking; they just have differing ideas of how it should be done.

A remarkably thoughtful example of those ideas was proposed by Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, who suggested recalibrating fact-checking standards to focus on the broader deception at work, rather than simply fine-grained facts. He proposed three orienting questions: What was the speaker trying to imply? What would it take to state things accurately? How much would accuracy damage the speaker’s point? The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf gave an example of how this approach might work outside the banner of “fact-checking,” and elsewhere, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Justin Peters urged news orgs to continue pushing forward with fact-checking, experimenting with ways to make it fit into all of their political reporting and do it on deadline.

A bellwether bankruptcy for newspapers?: The Journal Register Co. newspaper chain, which has been seen as a leader in digital innovation within old-media news organizations over the past several years, surprised a few of its observers when it filed for bankruptcy this week for the second time since 2009. In announcing the move on his blog, CEO John Paton said his company has more than doubled its digital audience and tripled its digital revenues since its last bankruptcy (its digital expenses have also more than doubled), but that hasn’t been enough to offset continued declines in print advertising and circulation.

Paton also said the company has signed a stalking horse bid with an investment fund affiliated with its current owner, hedge fund Alden Global Capital, so it doesn’t appear that ownership will be changing hands. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon put together a few more details using the company’s employee Q&A, and Jim Romenesko published the requisite email from a disgruntled employee.

On the other side, Steve Buttry — who runs social media for Digital First Media, which is intertwined with the Journal Register Co. — was much more optimistic that bankruptcy wouldn’t derail the company’s digital progress, and Matt DeRienzo, who edits several papers for the Journal Register, assured us that the company’s focus on local digital journalism would remain intact. CUNY journalism professor and Journal Register adviser Jeff Jarvis was also supportive of the move, calling it a necessary step for newspapers in the transformation into digital sustainability.

Paton told The New York Times the bankruptcy is necessary to deal with debt the company took on several years ago, when it was much bigger and much more old-media. A big chunk of that debt comes from an underfunded pension program, and as Poynter’s Rick Edmonds described, that’s a problem that numerous other newspaper companies are grappling with. Paton and the Journal Register Co. may be the first of several, he said, to undergo a strategic bankruptcy to try to shed some of those pension obligations without overhauling the company’s structure or ownership. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM compared newspapers’ situation to that of industries like autos and airlines.

At the Lab, Martin Langeveld was a bit more skeptical of the strategic bankruptcy, saying it may be part of a strip-it-and-profit plan by Alden rather than continued investment in the news industry. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum also raised questions about the information missing from Paton’s statements, suggesting he’s trying to ditch the company’s former ways and forgo digital subscriptions “in favor of vague pronouncements about reader engagement and the use of social media, which are already widely adopted across the newspaper business.”

The Lab’s Josh Benton delivered a thorough analysis of how the Journal Register Co. and other newspaper companies like it got into this debt-and-pension mess and what it might take to get out. The problem, Benton contended, isn’t that old-media companies have forgotten how to make money — “It’s that they can no longer make that money at the scale they could 10 years ago — but their cost structures are still tied to that old scale.” This bankruptcy gives the Journal Register Co. a chance at the first full reboot from that old scale we’ve seen in the newspaper industry, Benton said.

Ideas for newspapers’ reinvention: A number of other strategies for reinvention have been suggested for the newspaper industry, and a few of those were the subject of some discussion this week. One of the more interesting proposals was media analyst Frederic Filloux’s case for raising the price of newspapers’ print products, based on a study by a German marketing firm that argued for offsetting circulation revenue losses by turning print into a premium product.

This wouldn’t be an attempt to save print, Filloux argued, but an effort to squeeze continued revenue out of it in response to an irreversible revenue decline. He contended that it wouldn’t hurt print advertising as much as you’d think, but said it would only work for high-quality products, which doesn’t include many regional papers. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon rounded up a couple more opinions on the plan of instituting online paywalls and raising print prices. (And regarding paywalls, the Sacramento Bee launched its paywall this week, part of McClatchy’s paywall ramp-up.)

At the Columbia Journalism Review, Clay Shirky suggested that legacy news organizations have been shrinking as they’ve needed to, but have not been doing the other half of that process — restructuring and re-inventing themselves as they shrink. In an interview with the Lab, Philadelphia Inquirer editor Bill Marimow responded to one recent reinvention suggestion for his newspaper, saying he couldn’t see the Inquirer going all-digital until almost all of its readers have no need for it in print. Joel Mathis, who made the proposal, countered that the Inquirer should be making platform decisions based on the convenience of the majority of its readers, not just the preferences of a few of them.

Reading roundup: A few other stories and interesting pieces bouncing around during this relatively quiet week:

— A handful of Twitter notes: Twitter launched embeddable interactive tweet timelines this week, and The New York Times profiled the company’s chief lawyer, Alexander MacGillivray, and his run-ins with free speech limitations. One of Twitter’s former board members cautioned the company about what it might lose in going too hard after revenue, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram wrote a pair of posts wrestling with Twitter’s tension between openness and pursuit of revenue.

— The hacking group AntiSec, a subset of Anonymous, released a file that it said included more than a million personal ID numbers for Apple mobile devices, and claimed to have millions more numbers after hacking into an FBI agent’s computer. The FBI said there was no evidence the numbers came from its computers, and Apple denied giving the FBI device IDs. Still, security consultant Aldo Cortesi called the leak a privacy debacle, and GigaOM’s Erica Ogg noted that it’s a reminder that Apple still has to come up with an anonymous alternative to their current device IDs.

— The New York Times’ David Carr looked at Reddit’s laissez-faire ownership by Advance Publications in light of its meteoric growth as an online community and news source, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram drew out some lessons for news orgs from Reddit’s rise.

— The Columbia Journalism Review released a fascinating, wide-ranging package on the future of the media this week. I’d especially commend to you Simon Dumenco’s look at the post-banner ad future of advertising, Kira Goldenberg’s thoughts on the future of the news article, and Emily Bell’s piece on the rise of data journalism.

What to read next
Justin Ellis    Aug. 27, 2014
What separates the successful innovation projects from their peers? Preparing for resistance, being agile about audience, and getting the user experience right.
  • Jay Small

    Mark, in your roundup of discussion regarding fact-checking, why no mention of James Taranto’s piece this week on the subject (

    Taranto is a political commentator, of course. I doubt the other sources you linked, be they academics or working journalists, share most of his political views.

    Regardless of viewpoint, though, Taranto does cite examples of fact-checking turned opinion-injecting that should give pause to any practitioner of journalism. Without it, your roundup seems incomplete.

  • TSteichen

    Fact-checking is simply a label that attempts to impart an objective,
    non-partisan examination of partisan claims.  Just as lipstick doesn’t
    change the nature of the pig, the “fact-check” label doesn’t impart any
    magic transformation either. 

    Many of those promoting fact-checking seek to imbue it with “obvious”
    objectivity.  But an even cursory examination of what passes for
    fact-checking clearly shows that to be untrue – fact-checking can be and
    often is, just as subjective as the claim it’s checking.

    The fundamental limitation of fact-checking is that it allows those articulating  the political position in the first place, to frame the
    discussion.  And, it allows them to state the position in ways that
    contain a germ of truth.  Or state the position without any conflicting context.  Either of which weakens the fact-checking.

    No, the only way we will rein in the incredible level of political lying
    is to adopt some way to get the politicians to respond to questions
    prepared independently (and objectively) about the key issues.  Someone
    else has to frame the issues properly and state them fairly and

    Terry Steichen


  • Jay_Small

    Terry, I’d add only two words: “…to respond WITH SUBSTANCE to questions prepared independently…”

    Nothing more frustrating, or more common nowadays, than pols’ vague, deflective or non sequitur replies to well-reasoned questions.

  • TSteichen

    Completely agree. The process needs to be structured so that ‘vague, deflective or non-sequitor replies’ will not be allowed to cut it.