Conventional media wisdom holds that fact-checking is ascendant — that it drives traffic, lands with impact and will continue growing.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch is heading in the other direction. A note from Executive Editor Paige Mudd notes that the newspaper is ending its relationship with PolitiFact, under which the newspaper has been fact-checking Virginia politicians since 2010. “The Times-Dispatch is committed to reporting on the truthfulness and accuracy of statements by newsmakers in all of our coverage,” writes Mudd. “We will apply some of the lessons learned from our experience with PolitiFact throughout the newsroom, but we will no longer use the PolitiFact fact-checking formula, which included ratings ranging from True to Pants on Fire for the veracity of statements, and a lengthy process inside our newsroom to determine those ratings.”
The person who directed that lengthy process has been laid off from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “I was told it was a financial decision,” says Warren Fiske, the Times-Dispatch’s editor of PolitiFact Virginia. The 61-year-old came to the newspaper to pilot the partnership with PolitiFact. “I’m really proud of the body of work we did at PolitiFact Virginia, incredibly proud of it,” says Fiske.
Aaron Sharockman, executive director of PolitiFact/PunditFact, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that the organization’s original round of partnerships focused on newspapers in Atlanta (the Atlanta Journal-Constitution), Austin (the Austin American-Statesman), Providence (the Providence Journal) and Richmond. “That worked really well because PolitiFact needed the support of a traditional legacy news organization,” says Sharockman. These days, however, PolitiFact is doing partnerships with outlets such as the digital Billy Penn in Pennsylvania, Capital Public Radio in California and Reboot Illinois. “Newspapers are kind of becoming a difficult sell,” says Sharockman, citing the labor-intensiveness of a bona fide fact-check.
Asked about the motivation for the decision, Mudd said the move was about maximizing resources. “Our PolitiFact team only had two people and so we see that the reporter who was part of that team can have a greater impact in terms of quality and quantity of news coverage as part of our breaking news team,” said Mudd, referring to PolitiFact Virginia reporter Sean Gorman. In its waning days, says Mudd, PolitiFact Virginia was producing about two fact-checks per week, and the traffic from that work resides on a PolitiFact site, not on the newspaper’s site. “We don’t get the benefit of the clicks, even for items that do well,” says Mudd. Sharockman says PolitiFact monitors the contributions of all partners and that they’re able to monetize the traffic if they choose to do so.
The winners in this move? People such as Laura Ingraham, Ed Gillespie, Terry McAuliffe, Hillary Clinton, “chain email” and many others who’ve secured a “Pants on Fire” rating from PolitiFact Virginia. They won’t have to worry about another go-round in that space.