February 12, 2018

PolitiFact, one of the largest and best-known fact-checking outlets in the United States, has moved its organization from the Tampa Bay Times to The Poynter Institute.

Poynter announced in a press release today that the fact-checking outfit had moved down the street to its St. Petersburg, Florida, building in order to earn a not-for-profit designation and bolster work already being done by the International Fact-Checking Network (which was not involved in the ideation or execution of the deal).

“By formally adding PolitiFact to our portfolio alongside the International Fact-Checking Network, we expand Poynter’s training capacity, its involvement in the craft and its role as a center that not only promotes fact-checking, but is a resource for journalists in the U.S. and worldwide who are trying to expand the form,” said Neil Brown, president of Poynter, in a press release. (No Poynter executive reviewed this story prior to publication).

Three journalists based at the Times (which Poynter owns) have already moved to Poynter and been onboarded, while five based at PolitiFact’s Washington, D.C., offices and one in Miami will remain there. Editor Angie Holan told the IFCN that the organization will continue its special relationship with the Times by publishing fact checks focused specifically on Florida politics.

The announcement comes on the heels of Brown’s selection as Poynter president in August and constitutes a major editorial addition to Poynter, whose editorial arm is confined to media coverage on Poynter.org. However, PolitiFact will remain independent from both the nonprofit newsroom and the IFCN, retaining both its existing website and decision-making processes.

In the release, PolitiFact’s reconstitution was likened to other nonprofit newsrooms, such as ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity. As a new nonprofit, PolitiFact is expected to generate extra revenue for both the fact-checking outlet and Poynter as a whole.

“Having PolitiFact join the nonprofit arm of the organization makes perfect sense as we see steady interest from funders and grant-making organizations looking for opportunities to support fact-checking,” said Wendy Wallace, director of advancement at Poynter, in Monday’s release.

The move constitutes the first major business change for the Times since July, when its parent company announced a refinancing of its debt — a portion of which is owed to Poynter.

In 2015, Poynter loaned $6 million to the Times to facilitate its purchase of the Tampa Tribune. As previously reported, the company is expected to pay the loan back with interest “as its own finances improve by adding subscribers and selling advertising with an expanded audience.”

We asked Brown how the reorganization of PolitiFact — which he said is a financially self-sustaining project of the Times newsroom — affects the bottom line for Poynter and the Times. He said no cash traded hands in the asset transfer and that the loan wasn’t a motivating factor in the decision, but rather a later added benefit. Poynter’s lawyers okayed the move, he said. (Here’s more on Poynter’s finances, as reported in Internal Revenue Service Form 990).

Holan told the IFCN on Monday that she doesn’t expect the move to alter their journalism all that much — if at all.

“I don’t think it will have an effect on our day-to-day fact-checking or the coverage that people are accustomed to seeing, at least nothing dramatic or right away,” she said. “I think it will help us with grants and that sort of thing. I also think the relationship with Poynter could be helpful in helping us keep our journalistic standards high.”

The move brings PolitiFact under familiar leadership. Brown was the Times editor who approved the creation of PolitiFact in 2007, and Holan said she looks forward to continue working with him.

“This does feel like a move that’s happening within the family,” she said.

Outside of the Tampa Bay area, David Folkenflik, a media correspondent at NPR, told the IFCN that the move is also unlikely to affect PolitiFact’s perception in the political media landscape.

“I think PolitiFact has successfully established its brand and record in the years since its founding by Bill Adair,” he said. “If PolitiFact were moving over to the Heritage Foundation or The National Enquirer, its home would be far more disruptive.”

Still, while the fact-checking outfit’s move to Poynter may not affect its standing in the journalism community, Folkenflik said it will need to maintain a rigorous approach. That wasn’t helped by its recent botched hiring of former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida) as a reader representative — but PolitiFact’s handling of the incident demonstrates its high journalistic standard, he said.

“I by and large find them pretty valuable,” Folkenflik said. “I would hope that at Poynter, they would sustain what’s going on and make sure that, if they need to breathe new life, that they do that.”

And Holan agreed.

“I want PolitiFact to keep its vitality that I think we have from being born out of a newspaper,” she said. “I love the qualities of speed and urgency and bringing the news to readers every day, so I hope we don’t lose that. And I don’t think we will.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that five PolitiFact journalists had moved from the Tampa Bay Times to Poynter, while four remained in Washington, D.C. In fact, three have moved to Poynter, five remain in D.C. and one is based in Miami. Apologies for the error, which was made by misreading the press release.

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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