Posted by: structureofnews | August 24, 2017

The Story of PolitiFact

PolitiFactJust a quick post to point out this nice piece in Columbia Journalism Review by Bill Adair about the birth of PolitiFact, my oft-mentioned poster child (along with Homicide Watch and Connected China) for structured journalism.

Bill walks us through all the ups and downs of creating the site 10 years (!) ago, including a bunch of dead ends in trying to find a sustainable business model, and how it’s finally found its footing.

Among the key points he makes:

  • You needed to approach political reporting from a completely different perspective (just as Laura and Chris Amico needed to approach crime reporting from a completely different perspective).
  • You needed to rethink what a story looked like, and was organized and built.

We brought in Matt Waite, a reporter who had done lots of data journalism, to build the website. He incorporated the ideas of Adrian Holovaty, a visionary web developer who believed that journalism should be structured like a database so readers could interact with it.

  • You needed to build a platform that would support that new story structure.

We realized it wasn’t practical to put PolitiFact on the newspaper’s web publishing system, so Waite built ours from scratch.

(Which is a pretty critical point – technology enables journalists to do many more things these days, but technology also constrains what we can do, as anyone who’s wrestled with a CMS knows.)

  • And you should have a secret sauce – or at least something that’s unique to the site that isn’t easily copied.  In this case, it was the Truth-O-Meter, and specifically the Pants on Fire rating.

And you need patience – although possibly not too much.

Building a new kind of news site – but more to the point, a new kind of news story – is not for the faint-hearted.  You can be too far ahead of users, who need time to come to understand and appreciate the site’s offerings.  Bill was lucky enough to have the Tampa Bay Times incubate the project for a decade – although it has to be said that PolitiFact caught on with the public pretty quickly.  Still, you can also be too far ahead of readers – or, possibly not anywhere close to what readers actually want.  That’s a fine line to walk.

But you won’t know unless you try.  And in a rapidly changing landscape, the greatest risk is in not trying.

Being innovative sometimes requires jettisoning old routines. Taking on daily fact checks meant doing far less of the everyday political reporting that once dominated the Times’s Washington coverage. But PolitiFact’s success over the past decade is proof that committing to those tradeoffs and editorial experiments can pay off in big and surprising ways.


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