Why do fact-checking sites close? And how can new ones avoid that fate?
Most people would instinctively reply "money" and "get more money" to the questions in the headline. And they wouldn’t be wrong.
Nonetheless, fact-checkers face a few additional challenges to finding a sustainable business model than journalism in general (which already has its fair share of trouble).
First of all, because their mission is tied to offering an impartial service, fact-checkers tend to eschew funding that could appear partisan, even more so than other media organizations.
Fact-checking at the moment is also less scalable and more labor-intensive than some other journalistic projects. Unlike sports and business coverage, fact checking cannot yet reliably be automated, so many journalists are required to verify the overabundance of suspect claims. Moreover, fact-checkers have not figured out a business model that goes beyond traditional donors or generalist media clients. The verification tools that Storyful offers, for example, seem as useful to Coca Cola's advertising department as they are to The New York Times' breaking news desk. Fact-checkers have yet to offer a service this versatile.
Finally — and crucially — funding is often tied to the misguided idea that fact-checking is relevant only during an election cycle.
For these reasons, many websites have gone inactive in recent years even as fact-checking grows worldwide.
Take the cases of fact-checking websites Véritometre (France), PolitiFact Australia, Morsi Meter (Egypt) and FactCheckEU.org. All of these launched over the past five years and have since closed down. (Disclosure: FactCheckEU was an offshoot of Pagella Politica, of which I was Managing Editor before joining Poynter).
These organizations did not close because they failed to gain traction. PolitiFact Australia, the first international affiliate of the Florida-based PolitiFact.com, started operations with a budget of more than 300,000 Australian dollars and touted an expanding reach before it closed. FactCheckEU's departure was decried by a long series of high-level "EU bubble" tweeters (see here, here and here). Véritometre's live coverage of the 2012 presidential debate in France boosted its follower account by 15,000 in a matter of hours. Besides promoting a culture of accountability and representation that went beyond the ballot box, the Morsi Meter even inspired a song.
Yet they all have closed down. What can existing or aspiring fact-checkers learn from these cautionary tales?
- The moment you secure your first client/donor, start thinking about the next one. While few (if any) fact-checking organizations launch with several years of funding already secured, planning for the next funding round needs to start as soon as the site is online. This can be daunting for organizations with a handful of full-time staffers at best, especially because a successful launch requires additional marketing and content creation. But it is fundamental.Peter Fray, the former director of PolitiFact Australia who's now at the University of Technology Sydney suggests fact-checkers begin "thinking about your ongoing proposition ASAP. How will you make money, how will you engage with audiences?"
The other three websites all launched specifically as projects tied to the elections, so their strategy was short-term from the start. However, in light of positive feedback from readers, Véritometre considered and FactCheckEU attempted to continue operations after the elections. Seeking funding at that stage, however, is too late. Aspiring fact-checkers should establish contacts with a wide range of potential donor organizations or media clients as soon as possible. While more avenues will open up after the launch — FactCheckEU, for example, established a short-lived collaboration with POLITICO Europe — setting up a business model on the go is not as effective as launching with one from the get-go.
- Calibrate the scope and reach of your fact-checking realistically."Fact-checking is time consuming and therefore expensive," says Nicolas Patte, a co-founder of Véritometre. "You need to have a good idea of the means required to realize a good return on investment before launching into the endeavor."Sometimes it's your donors or partners who want to be more than realistic. Fray says PolitiFact Australia "made the mistake of believing Channel 7 would want what they said, up to three fact checks a day. That is too many. We wrote a contract for that and most importantly staffed up for it. We ended up with 10 journalists and 3 researchers — and a big wage bill."
In FactCheckEU's case, trying to cover the entire EU in six languages proved overambitious even with decent results from the crowdsourcing of translations.
In this sense, Morsi Meter's approach of concentrating on the first 100 days of the new president's term allowed the team to plan conservatively.
- Insulate your fact-checking from the political cycle."Australia’s compulsory voting was a blessing and a curse: There is at election time a very engaged audience; there is outside of election, a largely disenchanted one," Fray said. Readers weren't the only ones who switched off: "Channel 7 left us as soon as the election was over."A successful fact-checking operation will look for ways to cover elections closely because a broader audience tends to be interested in that stage — but have a clear strategy to remain relevant afterwards. This will mean finding non-electoral events to replace debates and high-profile campaign speeches that drive traffic and media coverage, or concentrate on elections at a local or regional level.
Fact-checking organizations must decouple their work from elections and remain relevant. This is as crucial for obtaining grants and clients as it is for reader retention.
The political context isn't always this malleable, of course. Mohammed Morsi was deposed the year after being elected. Attempts to fact check President Sisi have foundered due to the subsequent polarization of the Egyptian public, according to Abbas Adel and Amr Sobhy, co-founders of the Morsi Meter.
- Have a plan if everything goes upside down.No one wants to make plans for their own end. But false claims have a habit of returning to center stage, so fact checks produced years ago by a defunct organization are worth preserving. When Véritometre's parent website OWNI.fr closed down, its fact-checking went offline, too.FactCheckEU's content is still accessible, and Pagella Politica occasionally publishes EU-related content in English but neither is guaranteed in the long run. In contrast, PolitiFact Australia's content will be available for a long period as the website has been archived by the National Library of Australia ("Archiving was a gift", says Fray).