Amid the fervor about PoltiFact’s verdicts and the rise and expansion of political fact-checking operations, there is another fact-checking website that leaves the political checkers in the dust, traffic wise. A website that’s successful enough that its editor is planning an expansion into another vertical.
No, it’s not Snopes, the granddaddy of Web-based rumor debunking sites. That site does a reported 7 to 8 million uniques a month and is well known. It’s the biggest and most established debunking site.
So what’s this newer site, and how was it able to attract 3 million uniques in February?
Now you understand how a fact-checking site can attract 3 million uniques. To put that number in perspective, the media kit for PolitiFact pegs its traffic at around 500,000 uniques per month, though I bet the site is trending higher in 2012. FactCheck.org is also reportedly in the half a million uniques range per month. (PolitiFact is operated by the Tampa Bay Times, which is owned by Poynter.)
Sports checking site is next
Gossip Cop editor and co-founder Michael Lewittes, a self-described “reformed” gossip reporter, said the site, launched in 2009, attracted 1 million uniques in August 2010. By August 2011 it was 2 million. Then, this year, it hit 3 million, according to their internal Google Analytics.
“The site and the idea really grew out of a frustrated response during my time as journalist reporting out stories only to find out that they wouldn’t make it into the magazine or on TV when I was at ‘Access Hollywood’ because they were inaccurate,” Lewittes said. “With the proliferation of blogs run by people who’ve never been reporters, the inaccuracies became more widespread. One day it hit me … I feel like I’m spending my life finding out stories weren’t true — how about a site that tells you what’s true, what’s not true?”
That epiphany highlights the simple and clever truth of Gossip Cop: Even though the site’s mission is “Busting bad dish,” it’s still, of course, in the celebrity gossip business.
In this respect, Gossip Cop is evidence that fact checking can be branded as a niche within a niche. Verification should be at the heart of all reporting, but fact checking can be a viable vehicle to focus on a topic or vertical.
Lewittes is preparing to move into new verticals soon.
“With the success of the site, we’re definitely looking into expanding others areas, the first of which is sports,” he said. “There’s a lot we can ‘cop’ in the world of sports and the lives of the athletes.”
Sports are a logical fit for a fact-checking site. There are rampant, constant rumors about free agents and rifts between players and coaches, to name but two kinds of news worth checking. These items come from both established and emerging media, and there is as much of an echo chamber in sports coverage as there is in celebrity gossip or politics.
There’s also another essential part of the equation: rabid consumers of sports rumors.
As with political junkies and the celebrity obsessed, sports fans are insatiable, engaged and always eager for something new to debate, share or rage over.
Lewittes won’t say anything about other verticals they’re considering, but I’d wager technology is also a good fit. There’s already a cottage industry in Apple rumors, but a site that looks at, and attempts to verify, all of the rumors about products and companies seems logical.
Fact checking as the long game: “Time is our friend”
Taking the time to report out a rumor means you forego the initial rush as a report starts to spread. Ultimately, you win by having the more definitive report.
Built into the concept of debunking is the idea that you can attract the attention, and traffic, of people searching for the rumor. And by offering the truth, you hope your content proves more shareable and linkable.
I asked Lewittes: Does that mean gossip is a short game and checking gossip is a long game?
“The long game is fact checking, for sure,” Lewittes said. “There is a certain short game on the really big story of the day.”
That’s when rumors hit and begin propagating. His contention is that Gossip Cop succeeds because it comes with answers, rather than questions and rumors. That’s the enduring story, and a story that appeals to the very same people who jumped all over the initial reports.
It’s the same audience, same topic, but the information is presented through a different lens.
“It is the celebrity obsessed for sure, there’s no question,” Lewittes said of his audience. “I think we’re probably a first read for a lot of people and second read for a significant percentage. People who go to those sites and pick up the magazines and watch entertainment shows, they realize [there’s] a story everyone’s talking about, but [wonder] if it’s true?”
Having spent two decades in the gossip game at places like the New York Daily News, Us Weekly and “Access Hollywood,” Lewittes developed contacts in the business and with stars, their advisers and entourages. This enables him and his team to reach out and check if a rumor really is true. They spend a lot of time on the phone and on email, contacting sources. That’s the grunt work of verification.
“We don’t put ourselves on any pedestal, we just see ourselves as reporters and we really stick to that,” he said. “Being reporters and fact checking and calling sources.”
Since the site will often cite anonymous “sources close to” a celebrity much in the same way other gossip sites do, it’s fair to wonder if they really have contacts close to top celebrities. Is their information and access really better than other gossip reporters?
In the Hollywood tradition, Lewittes’s response is to name drop. He notes that during a backstage press conference at this year’s Golden Globes, none other than George Clooney singled out the site for its good works.
“You have a wonderful site, because you actually are trying to find the truth,” said Clooney, after Lewittes had identified himself and asked the star to comment on the gossip rumor mill.
“I walked out of there going, ‘Wow, George Clooney not only knows Gossip Cop but likes what we’re doing’ ” Lewittes said.
I asked if he ever thinks that celebrities and their representatives use the site as part of a PR strategy, or if contacts ever declare a rumor is false only to have it turn out to be true?
“No one ever said to me, ‘Listen this is an embarrassing story but it’s true, so spin it,’ “ Lewittes said.
Checking alone not enough?
I first wrote about Gossip Cop close to two years ago. Aside from the traffic growth since then, one thing that stood out to me was the fact that the site’s homepage also included general celebrity content.
It’s as if PolitiFact started publishing political news of the kind you can find on Politico.
For example there’s this story about Rihanna walking around New York in a revealing shirt. That’s clearly her in the photos, so there’s not much to debunk. But Rihanna’s nipples get good traffic. The site also regularly posts box office numbers, film trailers and other general entertainment content. See this recent post that links to the trailer for the forthcoming “On The Road” film. None of those items had the site’s rumor ranking.
“There are also some stories that for one reason or another feel funny having a meter, such as the weekend box office numbers or Rihanna walking out in a revealing top,” he said. “Seems odd to point out as true the verified box office numbers. As for the Rihanna piece, there’s every so often that debate over whether the rating, along with the headline, will confuse the reader. Yes, it’s accurate that Rihanna walked out in public — and even had a meal — in a see-through top (hence a 10). But it’s not true she had no clue the top would expose her breasts (meaning a 0). In these rare instances, where the headline and meter might seem at odds, we assume after the visitor reads the entire story, they get a sense of what is and isn’t true.”
An official trailer or box office receipt report doesn’t warrant a truth rating. But one could also argue that those stories are straight up gossip/entertainment news and outside the site’s focus.
“We’ve been sprinkling straight news stories, interesting interviews and pieces about ‘what people are talking about’ because we’re also a news site, and it can’t always be very black-and-white ‘this is true, this isn’t true,’ ” Lewittes said. “We’d like visitors to come to Gossip Cop to find out what’s real and what’s not, as well as provide them with some of the day’s biggest/most talked about news stories.”
Call it mission creep or just evolution, it seems that at a certain point fact checking alone may not be enough to sustain growth, at least in this vertical.