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Sept. 22, 2021, 11:20 a.m.

Publishers hope fact-checking can become a revenue stream. Right now, it’s mostly Big Tech who is buying.

Facebook alone works with 80 different fact-checking organizations worldwide.

Which came first: public scrutiny of misinformation on social media sites or companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google investing in fact-checking? The answer may not surprise you.

It was something to think about while listening to a webinar on Tuesday called “Fighting fake news as a business model,” which promised “success stories from major press agencies and technology perspectives.” While the webinar centered on Europe (it was sponsored by the European Alliance of News Agencies and photo industry organization CEPIC), the lessons apply to the U.S. too: The reality on the ground, the panelists acknowledged, is that it’s basically only Big Tech — Facebook, Google, Twitter, TikTok, etc. — that is willing to shell out for their services. Facebook alone works with 80 different fact-checking organizations worldwide, up from 52 in 2019. (Not that it’s solved their misinformation problems.) For even the most successful and established fact-checking operations within news organizations, fighting misinformation is not currently a profitable business.

The fact-checking operations at the German Press Agency (dpa) and Agence France-Presse (AFP) count some of the world’s biggest tech companies as clients — er, partners — but said that for their departments to become contributing revenue streams for their news agencies, they’d have to find more people and organizations willing to compensate them for the work.

“We have to strengthen our business model, meaning becoming less dependent on a few big clients,” said AFP‘s deputy head of Europe Yacine Le Forestier. “That means convincing the public at large at some stage that fact checking news is worth paying [for] — which, at the moment, is not exactly the case.”

Stefan Voss, verification officer at dpa, agreed. He also cautioned publishers entering the fact-checking-as-revenue lane who not to rely on.

“Convincing the public that fact-checking the news [is worth paying for] is a long term goal,” Voss said. “Everybody who’s new in the business of fact-checking, if you’re a news agency or whatever, don’t expect other media outlets to pay for it. You have to find other partners, other players who are interested in fact-checks, and the meaning of fact-checks within a democracy.”

Even when you do find those interested partners, the revenue is more of a drip than a flood. The UK’s Full Fact made $171,800 in six months in 2019; France’s Libération made $245,000 in 2018. That range, of a couple hundred thousand dollars, seems to hold in the U.S., where it can be generously estimated that Facebook spent around $2 million on fact-checking in 2019, split among a few different organizations. This is not get-rich money.

Still, given the onslaught of misinformation across the globe and their own expanding portfolios, the panelists were hopeful that fact-checking could become a revenue stream for news publishers in the future. AFP Fact Check, for one, has grown from a single fact-checker in Paris in 2017 to more than 120 fact-checkers working in 24 languages across in 80 countries by 2021.

There was a sense of journalistic ownership over the field of fact-checking, even as the formats that fact-checkers work in have grown from text and photographs to videos, posts on social media, and AI-assisted searches. Le Forestier emphasized that AFP fact-checkers relied on journalists on the ground for information and dpa rotates reporters through their fact-checking department to ensure “a permanent exchange” as new techniques of research emerge.

Even with their sizable operations, both AFP and dpa are focused on outsourcing to some extent, and teaching others to do their own fact-checking.

“One very big issue for us — and for all fact-checking organizations — is how to get out of the bubble, because at the end of the day, people who have already lost faith in mainstream media are not reading and not using our fact-checking. This is the reality,” Le Forestier said.  “How can we reach out to these people? It’s a big issue and one part of the solution will be empowering the public at large to fact-check by themselves using tools and tutorials.”

Voss said dpa — which publishes fact-checks in six European countries in Dutch, French, and German — has been extremely busy in the lead-up to Germany’s national elections this Sunday. (For the first time in 16 years, Angela Merkel is not running.) Thanks to a substantial Google grant, the news organization has trained more than 600 journalists from 100 media outlets in fact-checking with FaktenCheck21. The tutorials and media literacy trainings are free through the partnership, but could be expanded to become part of the organization’s business model in the future. They range from two-day workshops for journalists and masterclasses to an open learning platform called dpa factify featuring videos that explain, for example, how the Wayback Machine works or how to reverse image search.

The list of current and upcoming challenges for the fact-checking field was, to be frank, a little depressing. There’s no sign that the crush of misinformation is abating, keeping up with the arms race in misinformation technology is expensive, and obtaining reliable information is becoming more difficult in countries in the grip of authoritarian governments. Still, Le Forestier found a silver lining.

“The spreading of disinformation is also an opportunity for media. Fact-checkers have emerged as key players in the information verification process, and it has given a new legitimacy to media,” he said. “And the demand from the public — especially the young ones — is increasing.”

Chicken and egg illustration by MiniStock.

POSTED     Sept. 22, 2021, 11:20 a.m.
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