First Draft has left Harvard, citing problems with brand control

A little more than a year after moving there, First Draft is no longer based at Harvard University.

First Draft, the verification organization behind CrossCheck, moved to the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in October 2017. The move was billed as a symbiotic relationship: Harvard would grow its effort to bridge the gap between journalism and academia, and First Draft would benefit from the stability of the university.

But that’s not how it worked out.

First Draft and Harvard parted ways after a series of miscommunications, First Draft told Poynter. When Poynter reached out to the Shorenstein Center about First Draft’s departure, spokeswoman Liz Schwartz emailed a single statement.

“First Draft was affiliated with the Shorenstein Center during the run up to the 2018 midterm elections as part of our work to better understand how mis- and disinformation is spread online,” she said. “While it is once again an independent organization, their work continues to be very important in the field.”

The reason First Draft left is a cautionary tale for other verification projects considering the move to an academic setting.

“I hadn’t thought through how challenging that would be. In startup terms, it’s an acquisition, ultimately,” said Claire Wardle, former director of First Draft and current executive chair of its board. “Why should a university just provide you with space and allow you to continue? There’s a huge question here about existing brands.”

At the outset, the prospect of moving to Harvard was great.

The university has plentiful event space, financial overhead, staffing infrastructure and a brand that commands respect, said Wardle, who’s now working on a misinformation initiative with TED. It provided many of the things that nonprofits spend a huge portion of their time figuring out.

Since Harvard didn’t already have a brand when it came to anti-misinformation and debunking work, Wardle said it seemed natural just to carry over First Draft’s. The project had already been partnering with journalists around the world to debunk misinformation for more than two years.

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But when First Draft got to Harvard, she said, the staff and brand were expected to assimilate as a culture and a workplace, which they weren’t necessarily expecting. Wardle said she was issued a university phone number and email address, and was expected to use a new title that included the Shorenstein Center in it.

In the fall, Harvard was moving to kill the First Draft brand completely, Wardle said.

“I’m still little bit confused on how it went wrong and why they couldn’t support First Draft as a brand,” she said. “When you’re a struggling nonprofit and you’re worrying about where the next grant is going to come from, universities seem like a magic wand.”

Then there were new workflows that complicated First Draft’s work. To get new programs approved, the project would have to go through a university ethics policy that could take months.

“On Harvard’s side, it was nothing malicious. It was just kind of misunderstanding and miscommunication,” Wardle said. “When we were at Harvard, we did good work, but it sometimes felt like there was a barrier.”

Now, First Draft has regained its footing as an independent organization.

In November, it launched a new CrossCheck initiative in Nigeria to fact-check the February election there. Last month, it used a new round of funding to open offices in New York City and London. It published job listings for 12 people to staff the new offices.

“The thing we’re really excited about in 2019 is how can we support journalism around the world, how we can we do investigations into misinformation,” Wardle said. “While we will still use elections as a kind of moment to get people’s interest, what we’re hoping to build is a much more sustainable network globally of journalists, but other types of people who are interested in investigations.”

Still, there are obvious benefits to being at a university. Wardle said she thinks major journalism foundations should put together guides that help nonprofits make the decision of whether or not to move to universities.

“Sometimes universities are the right places, but which universities? Harvard shouldn’t be a stand-in for all universities,” she said. “I think there are other universities that wouldn’t have been a problem.”

Indeed, one of the first political fact-checking organizations in the world started at a university.

Factcheck.org launched in 2003 at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center after director Kathleen Hall Jamieson approached veteran journalist Brooks Jackson about the idea. The website, which fact-checks political statements and online misinformation, later served as a model for (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact and The Washington Post Fact Checker.

There are hundreds of fact-checkers around the world. Here’s what some of them look like.

To Eugene Kiely, director of Factcheck.org, the benefits of being a university-based organization are great. In addition to the overhead, the outlet gets built-in resources like free media subscriptions, library access and a pool of students from which they can draw for its fellowship program.

“We have an entire institution that we can draw upon,” Kiely said. “This was a project of the university. So we’ve been around for 15 years now and that’s because there’s a dedication to doing this kind of work and finding the money to continue to do it.”

But Factcheck.org was created by a university — not moved to one.

“There’s a benefit to being a program that was created by Kathleen,” Kiely said. “She has a vested interest in keeping this alive and supports it full-heartedly.”

There are other successful university-based verification projects, too.

At Duke University, the Duke Reporters’ Lab has helped innovate in the fact-checking space under the leadership of PolitiFact founder Bill Adair. A student-run fact-checking operation at the University of Wisconsin partners with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Reporting to publish fact checks online. Abroad, it’s fairly common for fact-checking projects to be based at universities. (Disclosure: The Reporters’ Lab helps pay for the Global Fact-Checking Summit.)

So how can other existing projects with brands independent of a university move to one and avoid miscommunication?

Wardle said it comes down to asking the right questions ahead of time. Laying out exactly how an organization will change once it’s assimilated into a university system is important to ensure it won’t run into the same problems First Draft did.

There’s also a question of which department a project will be part of once it’s part of a university. Since First Draft was part of the Kennedy School — which is not a journalism school but a government and public policy/administration school — Wardle said things like media ethics and industry standards, which most professional journalists know, weren’t commonly shared.

“The other thing I’d like to say is that I wouldn’t necessarily always caution someone to not go to a university,” she said. “It shouldn’t be a blanket, ‘Never do this.’ It’s just not an easy decision to make.”

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  • It appears the structural problems with Harvard became overwhelming and impossible to resolve. At RMIT University, the experience has been very different.
    RMIT ABC Fact Check, based in Melbourne, is entering the third year of a highly successful collaboration between the ABC – a publicly funded broadcaster similar to the BBC – and the university.
    The collaboration came about after ABC Fact Check fell victim to government funding cuts and political pressure. The advantages of being relocated in the university are manifold: guaranteed academic freedom, certainty of funding, and the availability of technology to publish across a variety of platforms.
    Being university based allows Fact Check to engage with academic staff and students across a variety of disciplines. Graduates are being taught ‘in real time’ the skills of fact checking, learning first hand the complexities of misinformation and disinformation.
    Using the resources of the university, Fact Check recently published a 90 minute online fact checking ‘credential’, something not possible under the old funding arrangements.
    RMIT has provided Fact Check, embedded in the School of Media and Communication, with total editorial independence. It is bound by the rigorous editorial standards of the national broadcaster, including the most transparent and comprehensive complaints system in Australia.
    Russell Skelton
    Director
    RMIT ABC Fact Check