Last week I wondered out loud whether verification would kill fact-checking. While my expectation is that it will not, I argued that fact-checkers should take a long hard look at the tools and above all at the business model of verification companies. One of these, Storyful, was bought by News Corp for $25 million in December 2013.
In contrast, external fact-checkers* tend to operate with budgets a couple of zeroes smaller than that. From a survey conducted of 30 fact-checking organizations before the Poynter fact-checking conference in London, we know that half have yearly budgets below $200,000 and nine (nearly a third) are running on $50,000 or less. Moreover, most fund a majority of their operations through grants.
No one better than the fact-checkers themselves are aware that this position is not long-term sustainable. Several fact-checkers run effective paid services for newsrooms or universities; at least five have run successful crowdfunding operations this year. Nonetheless, the sustainability of fact-checkers’ business models remains a key issue.
I spoke to David Clinch, global news editor at Storyful, about business models in verification and in fact-checking.
Let me start with a broad question. What would you say the similarities and differences are between verification and fact-checking?
In some ways they are closely knit, but they are very different processes. The way I see it, a normal process of fact-checking starts from the assumption that there is indeed a fact and you need to corroborate or refute it. With verification, you usually start knowing nothing at all and assuming that everything is untrue. Then gradually you add facts: say that a tank that appears in a video is Russian-made or that a mosque is where it is supposed to be.
Roughly speaking, what share of resources does Storyful dedicate to verification vis-à-vis content curation or rights acquisition?
We are paid to be a curator, a rights-clearing agency and a news agency. None of this could happen, however, without the verification. In this sense, verification is at least 50% of everything we do. There are different workflows that follow the verification itself, but in every team, including the marketing team, there is a core component of verification.
At least in Storyful’s case, verification seems to have hit on a business model for the 21st century in a way that fact-checking hasn’t really (yet). Do you think this is true or is Storyful only an exception?
Storyful has proven that verification is journalism – and that there is a business model for journalism. Storyful has taken a very important aspect of journalism and found that as a stand-alone it had a business model. As journalism and publishing are being broken up into smaller parts (aggregation, viral videos, business intelligence), each has or is finding its own business model. Several news organizations still have fact-checking units, which may be a reason why we haven’t seen a Storyful-like acquisition of a fact-checker. Like with verification, however the business model of fact-checking will center around partnering with other media companies.
External fact-checkers, like verification specialists, already provide services to newsrooms in France, Italy, South Africa, the USA, etc. However, it seems that these services are not “scalable” in quite the same way as Storyful’s. Would you say that a successful business model for fact-checking requires automatization to obtain that scalability?
Technology is important but is not all there is. We are a combination of technology and journalism, which has proven an important part of our success. Tech companies have realized that there is no single algorithm for journalism (which is why we count both Facebook and Google among our clients). At the same time, journalists are understanding that verification isn’t just a tool, but also an editorial expertise.
For fact-checkers specifically, I believe it would definitely help to become a platform rather than only an editorial service. Fact-checking should become something like a search engine where a reader can search ‘Hillary Clinton said this’ or ‘Carly Fiorina said that’ and find out if it’s true or not. If not anything else this platform would help fact-checkers concentrate on what the audience of live events such as presidential debates are most interested in finding out. Technology will definitely help make fact-checkers more valuable as it will help them work on the facts that people most want checked.
*A term I have borrowed from Craig Silverman to distinguish independent fact-checking operations from the teams within newsrooms which revise articles before publication.