7 newsrooms closed their PolitiFact chapters since the presidential campaign

PolitiFact, the national political fact-checking franchise started by the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times, has lost seven of its statewide partners since the presidential campaign.

Partners in Providence, Rhode Island, Des Moines, Iowa and Richmond, Virginia all discontinued their PolitiFact franchises within the last year, according to a report from the Duke Reporters' Lab. E.W. Scripps Television Stations, which operated four statewide PolitiFact affiliates, opted not to renew its agreement with PolitiFact but has been in talks to pick it up again, Scripps spokesperson Valerie Miller told Poynter.

"Scripps had an agreement with PolitiFact through the election last year," Miller told Poynter. "We have been in discussions with PolitiFact regarding a new partnership based on how well we thought the partnership worked."

Editors at the Richmond Times-Dispatch (PolitiFact Virginia) and Providence Journal (PolitiFact Rhode Island) said the decision to end their fact-checking chapters was motivated by a hard look at newsroom resources after the election.

"Seemed like it had run its course, we had lost the person who did it best locally and the commitment of time for another reporter didn't seem worth it," Providence Journal editor Dave Butler told Poynter. "Not a lot of traffic and on the national level we are getting fine fact-checking by the Washington Post and The AP. So that ground is covered."

Butler noted that the decision to end its PolitiFact chapter "was done as a part of us reviewing all local beats to maximize our resources."

"And as it turns out we're now devoting the time we were devoting to PolitiFact to having a reporter concentrate on the impact President Trump and the GOP Congress will have on Rhode Island," Butler said. "So far it seems like a good move — we still get plenty of national fact-checking and we have an experienced reporter really focused on Trump."

Paige Mudd, the executive editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, told The Washington Post her decision to cut the newspaper's PolitiFact team was prompted by a desire to use newsroom resources more efficiently.

Losing the statewide affiliates won't have a significant financial impact on PolitiFact, which has drummed up new ways of making money in the years since it began inking deals with newspapers, said Aaron Sharockman, the executive director of PolitiFact and PunditFact.

In 2010, PolitiFact began signing up partners in states in part to secure its long-term financial sustainability, Sharockman said. It had success — in 2015, about 20 percent of PoltiFact's revenue came from statewide sponsorships. Since then, however, it launched a membership program and grew its support from foundation funders. Today, statewide partnerships represent about 5 percent of PolitiFact's total revenue.

"If you look at the (fact-checking) census, you might say, 'gosh, we dropped a lot,'" Sharockman said. "Well, half of that number is the partnership with the television stations, which we hope to renew and we think we can renew. But the reality is, for them, they were looking at this as a way to expand their coverage for the election. Now they've realized that fact-checking is important."

Another money-making idea is becoming a wire service of sorts for newsrooms across the United States. This model would entail hiring a fact-checker based in PolitiFact's headquarters that would fact-check, say, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder or Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton.

Sharockman pointed to several signs that indicate fact-checking is on the upswing. First, PolitiFact's racked up about 20 million pageviews in 2017, up about 5 million from the previous year. The Washington Post and The New York Times are both in the process of bringing aboard additional fact-checkers.

There's also the inevitable boom-and-bust cycle that affects news organizations as they beef up staff in advance of an election and then cut back after it's over, Sharockman said. He flagged the departure of Bloomberg's Mark Halperin and John Heilemann and the spate of hires at places like Politico and CNN during the runup to the election.

Overall, Sharockman said, interest in fact-checking has grown rather than died down.

"You're looking at decisions made in individual states," Sharockman said. "I'm talking to editors and publishers and TV folks nearly weekly. People are way more interested in fact-checking today than they were six months ago. And they were way more interested in fact-checking six months ago than they were before that. People are believing more and more in fact-checking."

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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