PolitiFact raised $105,000 in 20 days through its newly launched membership program

The Committee to Protect Journalists saw a spike in donations after Meryl Streep's Golden Globe hat-tip; The New York Times and Vanity Fair, both objects of unflattering presidential tweets, have seen subscriptions surge.

Now PolitiFact, the fact-checking outfit of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times, seems set to benefit from a Trump bump. Between donations and pledges, PolitiFact raised $105,000 in 20 days through its newly launched membership program.

That's more than the fact-checkers had hoped to raise in all of 2017.

As of Monday morning, 611 people had pledged at least $50, the annual amount required to qualify for the lowest tier of membership in the "Truth Squad." A few hundred more donated less than that amount.

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Perks include the opportunity to listen in on the staff as they decide the Truth-O-Meter rating of a fact-checked claim, "virtual coffees," and access to a closed Facebook group.

"It's been amazing," said PolitiFact Executive Director Aaron Sharockman. Before launching, he had been eager to "right-size expectations:" the organization is not a nonprofit so membership contributions are not tax-deductible.

"What we always knew to be true was that a lot of people really valued our work and want to support it," Sharockman said. PolitiFact has surpassed its goals on more modest crowdfunding efforts in the past. PolitiFact's team was particularly enthused that this was a "grassroots kind of response," with many smaller donations and no single donation above $500.

The zeitgeist seems to favor the fact-checkers' fundraising efforts.

"A lot of people are looking at ways to support journalism in a lot of different ways," said Sharockman. During the 80-odd minutes of Sean Spicer's first full press conference on January 23, the Truth Squad total grew by $3,000.

PolitiFact had been working on its membership program for at least six months. It got help from the Voice of San Diego's News Revenue Hub, an initiative launched late last year to get media outlets running effective membership programs. Voice of San Diego advised PolitiFact on both strategy and implementation.

Membership funding isn't just another way to pay the bills, says Sharockman.

"What I'm really excited about is that we'll have the ability to have a steady way for us to fund our work in a way that ensures we remain independent, nonpartisan and objective. And also in a way that won't yo-yo with the elections."

In the long run, Sharockman hopes membership can account for a third of PolitiFact's revenue base, with grants covering another third and advertising and syndication the remainder.

Fact-checking organizations around the world have been adept at turning supporters into contributors, albeit not necessarily into members.

  • Factcheck.org recorded more than $70,000 from 1,154 individual donors in 2016.
  • In Argentina, Chequeado's small donor campaign brought in more than $30,000 since 2014.
  • British fact-checking outfit Full Fact has more than 300 regular monthly donors.

The latter have conducted successful crowdfunding campaigns and flirted with a membership plan but don't currently have the resources to offer members additional services. "If our team expands I can see it being the right move, though," said Full Fact's Mevan Babakar. "It definitely fosters community and the right kind of spirit."

Offering membership does require dedicated staff time. The one non-journalist on PolitiFact's staff, their business development lead, is taking over the lion's share of work on the Truth Squad. "And it is work," notes Sharockman.

The team is also trying to test out ways they can make the conversation a two-way street. For instance, one fact-checker dropped in on the closed Facebook group last week to ask members what they had about the National Security Council before publishing a dedicated fact sheet.

Sharockman is convinced that the members' community will be an asset for PolitiFact in ways that go beyond the revenue they represent.

"We're creating an army of fact-checkers that will help us in the long run."

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