Bill Adair


Lessons from London: fact-checkers have passion, but need more checks

Poynter’s inaugural Global Fact-Checking Summit attracted a diverse group of journalists to a London classroom this week.

Two Italians explained their creative ideas for earning money from their work. An energetic editor from Argentina talked about how she uses crowdsourcing to help her reporters. And two young journalists from Ukraine showed how they’ve used digital tools to find manipulated photographs in the Russian media.

Attendees at the Poynter’s Global Fact-Checking Summit in London. (Photo by Shannon Beckham)

The journalists shared something big in common: a passion for fact-checking.

As international conferences go, the Global Fact-Checking Summit was a small one — about 40 fact-checkers, a half-dozen academics who study this growing new form of journalism, plus a handful of representatives from the foundations that paid for the conference. But what it lacked it size, it made up in spirit.

They came from across the globe — India, South Africa, Serbia, Poland, Italy, France, the United States and Chile. Russell Skelton, the head of the ABC Fact Check in Australia, endured a 22-hour flight from Sydney and won the conference prize for the longest trip — a kitschy Barack Obama snow globe.

The two-day conference at the London School of Economics showed fact-checkers are a unique breed. They’re smart and can do sophisticated reporting. They’ve disrupted the status quo by challenging the accuracy of their political leaders. And they’ve developed thick skin to withstand frequent criticism. They are eagle-eyed and even caught a mistake in their Poynter certificates, which said the conference was held in July.

The big news from the meeting was the unanimous decision to form an international association that will hold future conferences, promote fact-checking and help the journalists exchange best practices.

As the organizer of the conference, my big takeaway was the realization that in some countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, impartial fact-checking can’t be done by newspapers and television networks because they are often controlled by the government or political parties. In those countries, it is being done by “media NGOs” — independent groups that play the role of the non-partisan media.

The meeting allowed the fact-checkers to exchange ideas and tips. Italians Alberto Puoti and Alexios Mantzarlis showed a glitzy TV fact-checking segment that reminded many of us of Dancing with the Stars. Paata Gaprindashvili of the GRASS FactCheck in Georgia played a video that used a wonderfully simple animation to explain a complicated subject.

But for all the great highlight-reel moments, there were plenty of reminders about some big challenges facing the London attendees:

  • Although fact-checking is flourishing in the United States and Europe, there are only a few sites in Africa and South America.
  • In many countries, fact-checking can be difficult because of the lack of reliable government data.
  • No one has found a sustainable business model for fact-checking.

That looms as the biggest challenge. Fact-checking sites don’t typically draw enough traffic to be commercially successful, so they have to get substantial support from large news organizations and foundations.

One of the most popular panels at the London conference was about finding new revenue sources. It began with gloomy comments from editors saying they were facing big funding cuts in the near future. But the conversation turned hopeful as the panelists offered some creative ideas to raise money.

Chequeado, a site in Argentina, hosts a big fund-raiser called “The Night of Chequeado.” in the United States raises about $80,000 a year from individual donations. Pagella Politica, a site in Italy, is exploring offering a variety of services that could bring in revenue, including selling its data and writing background briefs for television hosts about the fact-check records of politicians.

Mantzarlis, co-creator of Pagella Politica, said fact-checking takes a lot of time and effort, which means “there is definitely value in it.” So why not try to recoup some of that value?

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the fact-checkers is changing their mindset, something the new association is likely to address. They are not just journalists any more, they are managers and entrepreneurs who must find a way to keep their ventures sustainable.

Laura Zommer, the executive director of Chequeado, said fundraising required a big change in her approach.

“The most important thing,” she said, “is not to be shy.”

Bill Adair is the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University. He also serves as an adjunct faculty member at Poynter and is the creator of PolitiFact.
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Poynter to hold Global Fact-Checking Summit in London

With fact-checking growing around the world, the Poynter Institute will convene the first Global Fact-Checking Summit, to be held in June in London.

The conference, at the London School of Economics on June 9-10, will bring together about 40 fact-checkers from places such as South Africa, Italy, Great Britain, Germany, India, the United States, South America and Eastern Europe.

Fact-checking is expanding rapidly around the globe, according to a new analysis from the Duke University Reporters’ Lab. The Duke study found 59 sites that have been active in the last few years, including 44 currently in operation.

About half of the sites are affiliated with newspapers, television networks or other legacy media organizations. The other half are run by startup companies or not-for-profit groups. Twenty-seven have started in the past two years.

The Global Fact-Checking Summit is sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Ford Foundation, Omidyar Network, the Duke Reporters’ Lab, the British fact-checking site Full Fact, and craigconnects, the Web-based initiative to support philanthropy and public service run by Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist.

Topics will include the growth and challenges of fact-checking, the best techniques for researching claims, the pros and cons of rating systems, the use of crowdsourcing and the need to find sustainable business models.

“Fact-checking is quickly becoming an important new form of accountability journalism,” said Poynter President Tim Franklin. “Poynter will play a leading role to help journalists do their best work and foster the growth of fact checking, which is vital to democracies around the world.”

The conference also represents Poynter’s strategy to greatly expand its training initiatives across the globe. Last month, Poynter led a series of seminars for journalists in India. Later this month, the institute will formally announce the launch of a training project for Turkish journalists. The project includes e-learning courses through NewsU Turkiye, a certificate program and a fellowship that will bring up to 20 Turkish journalists to Poynter in the fall.

Presenters at the fact-checking conference will include editors from PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning site in the United States, and Chequeado, an independent fact-checking site in Argentina, as well as Lucas Graves, a University of Wisconsin professor who is writing a book about the rise of fact-checking, and Bill Adair, a Duke University professor and adjunct faculty member at Poynter.

For more information about the conference, contact Bill Adair at

Related training: Getting it Right: Accuracy and Verification in the Digital Age | Don’t Get Fooled Again: Best Practices for Online Verification | How to Keep Misinformation from Spreading | Growing Trust and Engagement With Local News Audiences | Making the Case for Fact-Checking in Your Newsroom | Political Fact-Checking: Tips and Tricks for the 2012 Election Read more


Creating new forms of journalism that put readers in charge

It’s been 20 years since the Internet began to disrupt journalism. It has turned our business upside down, but it’s also given us a new canvas to invent different ways of presenting information. It’s time to start reimagining the news story.

Last week, four of us gathered in a windowless conference room in New York to explore what we can do to nudge things along.

The participants were the creators of three projects that rely on new forms:

  • Laura and Chris Amico, the founders of Homicide Watch, the highly acclaimed reporting venture that tracks homicide victims and suspects in Washington, Chicago and Trenton, N.J.

All three projects use a structured approach to present content in different ways. The animated diagrams of Connected China show you the family and government relationships that determine who has clout in that country; the lists and maps of Homicide Watch show who has been killed and where; the PolitiFact report cards reveal which politicians have earned the most Pants on Fires.

Homicide Watch, Connected China and PolitiFact are known as structured journalism because the articles contain fields of information that can be sorted and tallied. They provide readers with many ways to explore the content, both through individual articles and the data the articles create. Structured journalism puts the reader in charge.

“It’s a way of reporting that builds a comprehensive reporter’s notebook and then opens that notebook up to the public,” said Laura Amico. “There is no ‘old news’ in structured journalism, there is cumulative news. It is reporting that increases in value over time.”

There are a few other ventures that are experimenting with similar new forms, such as Circa, the app that atomizes the news into digestible chunks. But by and large, story forms are stuck in the past. We want more news organizations to experiment with structured journalism.

We began our New York meeting by trying to understand why media companies have largely failed to take advantage of the incredible power of the Web and mobile devices. We identified four forces that have stymied innovation:

  • Content Management Systems. They are designed to convert old media into new media and they provide little flexibility to experiment with new journalistic forms.

  • Newsroom culture. The rhythm in most newsrooms is based on a well-established work flow that produces predictable content. It’s not easy to suggest a wholesale change.

  • Product managers on the business side. They’re accustomed to selling the old recipe and often seem perplexed by new approaches.

  • Editors/news directors. They’ve got other priorities — such as having to choose people for another round of layoffs — and often don’t have the resources for a new venture.

Chua said editors need to get beyond the idea that “what’s new is what’s valuable. Sometimes it is. But sometimes it’s accumulated information and knowledge that is valuable.”

We then turned to the need for evangelism. What can the four of us do to get more news organizations to try innovative story forms?

We agreed to host a mini-conference in September before the Online News Association meeting in Chicago. It will allow us to demonstrate the promise of new story forms for industry leaders and innovators.

In the meantime, we’ll be writing and speaking about the new forms and encouraging organizations to do more experimentation. We invite you to join in these conversations by sharing your projects, ideas and hopes. #structuredjournalism

Bill Adair, the creator of PolitiFact, is the Knight Chair for Computational Journalism at Duke University and an adjunct faculty member at Poynter. Read more

Smart Spending Winning the eBook War

Unfulfilled promise of e-books offers lessons for news organizations

I spent my vacation reading from pixels instead of paper.

I read e-book versions of “Bruce,” a Springsteen biography by Peter Ames Carlin, and Dan Brown’s bestselling novel “Inferno.” Both had great potential for extra audio and video that could have created a much richer experience. But the e-books offered no more than the ink-on-paper versions.

My disappointing experience offers a lesson for news organizations that are considering selling e-books because its shows how legacy media is still thinking like … legacy media. Book publishers still have an old-school mentality —  like many newspaper editors.

E-books offer great opportunities for magazine and newspaper editors because the digital versions can include video, audio and other content that will enrich a story. Newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post are publishing e-books because they can bring in extra revenue and new audiences. Consumers are accustomed to paying for books, and there are established stores (Amazon and Apple’s iBooks) that will market and sell them. But to do e-books right, editors and book publishers should take advantage of their multimedia features.

I read the iBook versions of Bruce and Inferno on my iPad, but the experience would have been pretty much the same if I’d used the Kindle versions. Here’s what they were like and how they could have been better:

Peter Ames Carlin’s “Bruce”

I’m a longtime Springsteen fan and was happy to find a biography that presented an honest account of his rise to stardom. Carlin shows Bruce warts and all — his petty behavior with girlfriends and his creative struggles as he recorded great albums such as “Born to Run.”

But while music is central to the story, you’ll have to be satisfied with Carlin’s words because the e-book doesn’t have any audio. There undoubtedly are hours and hours of video and audio that would complement Carlin’s smart prose. It would be easy to mix them into the e-book at key points to give the reader (listener? viewer?) a more fulfilling experience.

Instead, all we get is prose and some old Springsteen family snapshots.

Carlin told me by email that an enhanced multimedia version “is something I’ve definitely mused upon, dreamed about, etc. But it’s also very tricky terrain, given the verities of who owns what recordings and/or song publishing, and the costs of clearing rights for publication, and so on. I’m sure such enhanced books will soon be commonplace, but most likely as artist-approved projects, I think.”

I see his point, but I think it would be worth exploring more. Sure, there would be some licensing challenges, but Springsteen’s managers cooperated with him and might have allowed iTunes-length snippets or short compilations.

I was so frustrated with the lack of music that I downloaded several Springsteen albums to my iPad and played them in the background, so I could hear “Thunder Road” as I read how Bruce recorded it. I had to create my own multimedia e-book because the publisher, Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, didn’t.

Dan Brown’s “Inferno”

Inferno is part thriller, part travelogue.

As protagonist Robert Langdon and his sultry companion Sienna Brooks (Langdon’s companions always seem to be sultry) flee the villains, they duck into touristy sites in Florence and Venice, Italy, as well as Istanbul, Turkey. Brown does a decent job describing them with his workmanlike prose, but I often wanted to see photos and maps.

The e-book let me down. Despite an author’s note that promised authenticity — “All artwork, literature, science and historical references in this novel are real” — the e-book didn’t have any photos or maps, let alone animations that might have tracked the progress of Langdon and Dr. Brooks. I’m not saying Doubleday, the publisher, should have turned it into a Saturday morning cartoon, but some photos and a little animation would have enhanced my experience.

Just as I had done with the Springsteen book, I created my own multimedia experience for “Inferno.” I found a website compiled by historian Sanford Holst that features collected photos and maps of the book’s locations. I kept it open in Safari and referred to it every time Langdon and Brooks arrived at a new location.

Enhanced e-books are in their infancy, so I haven’t read many that take advantage of multimedia features. But I’ve seen a few, such as Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” a powerful account of poverty in Mumbai that includes video. Hollywood also has seen the potential, using free e-books with video and interactive features to promote the TV show “The Bridge” and the film version of “Les Miserables.”

Some of the big publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin and Simon & Schuster have begun selling more enhanced e-books. But they represent a small portion of all e-books. (I emailed a Doubleday spokeswoman but did not hear back.)

Newspaper and magazine editors should pay attention to the opportunity here. Enhanced e-books are not only a new way to tell stories, they’re also a way to make money. But editors have to think beyond ink on paper.

Related: What news organizations are learning from their e-book efforts | Star Tribune publishes serialized novel in paper, turns it into an e-book | In the year of the e-book, five lessons from — and for — news organizations

Bill Adair is the Knight Professor for the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University. He also serves an adjunct faculty member at Poynter and is a contributing editor for PolitiFact, which is run by the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times. Read more


Bezos has what The Washington Post needs: imagination and patience

The front page of today’s Washington Post print edition was dominated by coverage of the paper’s sale to Jeff Bezos. But a small story squeezed onto the bottom of the page, about the world’s first lab-grown hamburger, also gave some insight into what’s ahead for the legendary paper — and perhaps the rest of the news business.

The story recounted the taste test of the first lab-burger, which was described as “surprisingly crunchy.” The story noted who bankrolled the newfangled beef: Google’s Sergey Brin.

The Post — like the hamburger — will now be owned by a rich guy with a spirit of experimentation. Using just a tiny fraction of his tremendous wealth to buy the paper, Bezos made clear that he wants to tinker with the Post and explore the future of journalism.

“We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment,” he wrote in a letter to Post employees. “Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about — government local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports — and working backwards from there. I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention.”

It has been difficult for newspaper editors to do much inventing in the past few years because they have been too busy cutting. It’s hard to dream up new forms of journalism when you’re not sure you have enough reporters to cover the school board.

Just as Brin is paying to reimagine fast food (the beef-free beef burger holds lots of promise for the environment), Bezos has the resources to help reinvent the news business. He is well-suited for this because he isn’t a product of its ink-and-paper past.

The emergence of wealthy tinkerers such as Bezos is a promising trend because they can give the news business some stability and a fresh perspective. As the Post notes in its profile of Bezos, he has remarkable patience: He launched Amazon in 1994, but it didn’t turn a profit until 2001.

And Bezos has shown he has great imagination. His other investments include a company that will send people into space (the company, Blue Origin, says “accomplishing this mission will take time, and we’re working on it methodically”) and a clock that will tick for 10,000 years. Likewise, he’s grown Amazon into a behemoth by relentlessly trying new products and services.

After getting a foothold in books, clothing, e-books and many other consumer products, he’s venturing into groceries and even streaming video. (Last week, I caught up with the first episodes of “Under the Dome” by watching them on Amazon.)

We need more investors like Bezos. He’ll bring fresh thinking to a company that is still largely dependent on an ink-on-paper business model. (Even better: Maybe Brin will develop the same interest in papers that he has in beef! Consumers can read the news while they munch on their  lab-grown double cheeseburgers!)

Chris Taylor, a former writer for Time magazine who has covered Bezos, wrote in Mashable that he is “the best thing to happen to old-school journalism in a long time. He understands its values. He has no agenda, other than making sure customers are happy with the product. He is used to businesses that operate at razor-thin profit margins. He gets new media in a way the Grahams never could, and opens up new distribution channels they hadn’t even considered.”

A hallmark of our digital era has been the speed of progress. But Bezos has been a successful pioneer because he’s got imagination, deep pockets and is willing to give things a chance to grow.

Bill Adair is the Knight Professor for the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University. He also serves an adjunct faculty member at Poynter and is a contributing editor for PolitiFact, which is run by the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times. Read more


Let’s blow up the news story and build new forms of journalism

American journalism is suffering from a lack of imagination.

We’re at a transformational moment in how we publish and broadcast our work — a time of great promise when we can reinvent how we tell stories.

And yet, we are still doing things the same way we’ve done them for decades. Take a look at any newspaper’s website and you’ll see the same old story form — just in pixels. It’s the same for television stations. Their websites post the same video packages that were on the 6 o’clock news.

We are stuck in the ’90s. I remember one of the first conferences on computer assisted reporting in the mid-’90s when they showed us this thing called “the Web” and demonstrated a website for the “Late Show with David Letterman.” It was very cool and very promising. It showed how the Web gave us a new canvas to create new forms of journalism.

And yet here we are, almost 20 years later, and the content we’re putting on the Web has hardly changed.

What’s taking so long?

It’s partly an infrastructure problem. At newspapers, we’re hamstrung by the editing and content management systems that are used to publish our work. They were built for putting ink on paper. Then, as something of an afterthought, we added the ability to publish on the Web. But they are so rigid and constrained by our old templates that we have little flexibility to create new story forms.

Another problem is old media thinking. Editors and reporters haven’t stopped to invent new forms of storytelling — or even consider how they might do things differently on the Web and mobile devices. Their automatic response is to do the same basic thing they’ve always done: “Go write a news story about that.”

So let’s blow up the news story.

It’s time to rethink the unit of journalism. If we want to re-imagine how we tell stories, we need to consider alternatives to the traditional inverted pyramid story. So let’s tear it up. Let’s reinvent how we tell stories and create some new forms.

We should start by figuring out what we can do with the Web and mobile devices that aren’t possible with ink on paper.

For one thing, the Web and mobile devices can tally and sort. A lot of what we do in journalism is counting, and telling stories through counting. Our devices can now do that for us. They can also sort, telling us what’s important for us based on our location or our interests and they can tell the backstory more effectively.

We need to invent new units of journalism. In our old way of thinking, the unit was simply The Story, anything from a four-inch account of a burglary to a long narrative.

With the new platforms, we don’t have to repeat the backstory every time because the Web and mobile devices provide us easier and more creative ways to bring people up to date. If you haven’t been following a long-running tale, you could click to read the backstory, like at the beginning of a TV show when they say, “Previously, on ‘The Wire’…”

I was looking at a trial story recently, and I wanted to read what we had written when the crime first occurred. But in our content management system there was no way to easily link to that previous installment, to the original chapter. You should be able to get that with one click.

Devices can also allow readers to explore. A lot of what we do in journalism is with the attitude, “We’re gonna give it to you because we think it’s what you should have.” But we don’t provide enough opportunities for readers to explore, to take the raw materials of our journalism and find their own stories.

For example, check out Homicide Watch, a fascinating website in Washington, D.C. Instead of using the old story form, editors Chris and Laura Amico use a homicide as their unit of journalism. Laura writes descriptions of the homicides and then includes entries for victims and suspects. They can also be plotted on a map.

At PolitiFact, we’ve created two new forms. Instead of traditional articles, our Truth-O-Meter fact-checks are a new form that allows you to see a politician’s report card, to see all fact-checks on a subject or see all the Pants on Fire ratings. We can make larger journalistic points through the automatic tallies and summaries of our work.

We’ve done the same thing with the Obameter and the other meters we use for tracking campaign promises. The unit of journalism is the promise and then we write updates and rate whether the promise is kept or broken. The promises also get tallied so you can see how the politician is doing.

Here’s another possible new form: the bill in a legislature. We could start off with an explanation of the bill, who’s for it and who’s against it. We could provide updates for the introduction of the bill, hearings, floor debate, passage, and enactment. We could even automate it by tapping into the website of a state legislature or Congress. Then we could add journalism when it becomes a significant bill. We could identify the most significant bills and even localize them so you could see how your representative voted.

I am optimistic about the future of journalism. I see this as a moment of promise when we can take advantage of these new platforms. But to do it, we really need to blow up the old forms.

Bill Adair is the editor of PolitiFact, the Washington bureau chief of  Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times and an adjunct faculty member at the Poynter Institute.This article is adapted from a presentation at TEDxPoynter on June 1, 2012. Read more