PolitiFact Takes Lesson from Fast-Food Industry as it Franchises Fact Checking

When PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair went to Austin to train the people who would run PolitiFact Texas, the first state-level PolitiFact operation, he handed out the “Texas Truth-O-Meter Owner’s Manual.”

Inside were these “safety instructions”:

  1. Make sure you’ve done enough reporting before operating your Truth-O-Meter.
  2. Always call or e-mail the person or campaign that made the claim and ask them for the facts to back it up.
  3. Seek independent sources to verify or debunk the claim.
  4. Write clearly.
  5. Don’t take politics too seriously.
  6. Don’t take your Truth-O-Meter near water, and always unplug it during electrical storms.

That’s a pretty good summary of how the PolitiFact team approaches its work. And as the Pulitzer-winning fact-checking operation seeks partners across the country, it shows the challenges of franchising a unique editorial approach.

Besides PolitiFact Texas, which is run by the Austin American-Statesman, and PolitiFact Florida, which the Poynter-owned St. Petersburg Times runs with The Miami Herald, Adair said he’ll soon announce partnerships in two more states, with “serious interest” in four other states.

Each state-level operation will be a section of the larger site, sharing branding, methodology and writing styles. Yet they will be run independently and will make their own calls — which poses some interesting challenges for a process that is subjective to begin with.

In thinking about how to ensure consistency and standards across the site, Adair said he took a lesson from the fast-food industry. The key to making a hamburger that tastes like one hundreds of miles away: training.

So Adair conducted a three-day workshop that included two days in which the Austin staff researched and wrote PolitiFact stories. The “owner’s manual” included guidelines on how to judge whether a statement is worth checking, how to write a PolitiFact story and other accumulated wisdom.

Adair consulted with the Austin staff on their stories for about a month after they started, said W. Gardner Selby, chief political writer for the Statesman and editor of PolitiFact Texas.

As it turns out, figuring out whether a statement can be fact-checked is a learned skill, and Selby said Adair offered important advice in the early stages on how to judge this. At times, Selby said he and his staff have disagreed about whether a fact is verifiable and decided to simply note an important caveat within a story.

Because each newspaper, staff and state is different, each operation “will develop its own flavor” as they make their own calls, Selby said. “In the end, regardless of how you cast it, it’s a judgment call.”

Adair and I e-mailed about the partnerships and what role he sees for PolitiFact in the future. Here’s an edited version of our e-mail exchange.

Steve Myers: How does the relationship between PolitiFact and these partner news organizations work? What does PolitiFact get out of it, and what does the news organization get out of it?

Bill Adair: We license to them the right to use the PolitiFact name and our Truth-O-Meter for their own fact-checking. They publish their items on a sub-domain of PolitiFact.com that they control. They can sell ads on their pages and can count the Web traffic that they get. They also publish the items in their newsprint editions.

The state partner gets a distinctive feature that can enhance their Web offerings and their newsprint editions. A survey of Austin American-Statesman readers about PolitiFact Texas found the feature was very popular not just with Web readers but also with subscribers of the paper.

Our partners also get the right to earn additional revenue by syndicating their state Truth-O-Meter items to other papers and arranging partnerships with radio and TV stations.

For our end, we earn a modest amount of revenue from the arrangement and a broader audience gets exposed to PolitiFact.

I can see how you can franchise hamburgers, but how do you franchise editorial content, particularly content based on a unique approach like PolitiFact?

Adair: You have to get everybody to rely on the same journalistic standards. So we spent a lot of time writing the Truth-O-Meter Owner’s Manual and developing the training materials. We’ve been really happy with how that has worked. A colleague remarked recently how much the PolitiFact Texas site “sounded” like the national PolitiFact site, which I took as a great compliment.

How do you protect your credibility as more people make Truth-O-Meter rulings under the PolitiFact brand?

Adair: One of the lessons of national chains, particularly in the food business, is the importance of training and quality control. I did some research on how fast-food chains do it before we started and we have applied the lessons to our state ventures.

Good training is really important. We do some pretty intensive training for the reporters and editors who are involved with PolitiFact state sites and then, after they launch, we continue to help them with editing and making Truth-O-Meter rulings.

Our partnership with Austin has been a success largely because they put some very talented people on the PolitiFact team. But I think the training and our continued support was also critical.

How did you train the staff at the Austin American-Statesman?

Adair: We spent the first day in the classroom going over how PolitiFact works, how PolitiFact journalism is different and how to write and edit a Truth-O-Meter item. And then we spent two days with hands-on reporting, writing and editing so the reporters and editors had a chance to practice what they had learned.

You’ve set up this up so that each state is a section of the original national PolitiFact site. Why not simply let news orgs place their stories and rulings in a section on their own sites?

Adair: They get the best of both worlds this way: They can still sell advertising on their PolitiFact items and count the traffic they get, and their items also become part of our national fact-checking database, which gives them additional traffic. We also have the ability to highlight their items on our national home page, which can really boost their traffic.

It’s a tremendous public service at all levels. If the governor of Texas some day runs for president, voters can find out about his record by looking on PolitiFact at the many Truth-O-Meter items written by the reporters in Austin. Our feeling is that every elected official in the country should have to face the Truth-O-Meter.

What types of news orgs will you partner with? How many do you want?

Adair: We’re not limiting ourselves to newspapers. We’ve had conversations with radio stations, political blogs and Web-first publications. We’ll partner with any news organization that can dedicate two or three full-time reporters to the project and make a sustained commitment.

How many? I think our ultimate goal is to have PolitiFact sites in all 50 states. That will be difficult to achieve this year, but I’d like to be in five or six states by midsummer.

What approaches or ideas did you discard as you looked to broaden the scope of PolitiFact?

Adair: I expected that our most logical partners would be the largest news organizations in every state. But I’ve had some of the biggest papers tell me they can’t commit the resources. And as we’ve seen in Texas with the Statesman, a strong regional paper can do a great job if it commits just a few reporters.

Does PolitiFact support itself financially, including staff time? Do these partnerships create substantial revenue?

Adair: We’ve shifted substantial newsroom resources to PolitiFact in the belief that this different approach to our political coverage would be both a public service and a hit with our audience. The gamble paid off. It has been a journalistic success and a primary source of Web traffic.

We didn’t start out with this as a new “revenue product” — but we have always wanted to find the money to offset some of our costs and grow the effort. Traffic continues to grow significantly, and along with the journalistic acclaim, PolitiFact is now starting to attract advertisers. The state partnerships will generate modest revenue and we’re looking for other sources, including grants, so we can expand the work. Ultimately, this is a public service play.

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How will PolitiFact be different in the next presidential election?

Adair: I hope we’ll have PolitiFact sites in all 50 states so we’re not just checking the presidential candidates, but everyone running for office in every state.

For the presidential campaign, I hope we’ll be able to enlist our partners and our readers to help us find claims the candidates are making in their most targeted messages. A friend who worked on a statewide campaign told me about the sneaky ways the campaigns aim their messages to small audiences in ways that are hard for the news media to track. I hope we can enlist our partners and our readers to root out those sneaky messages and help us fact-check them.

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