Fact Checkers: The “New-Old” Job in Journalism

The topic of “fake news” is all over the journalism ecosphere these days. It’s the subject of charges and countercharges tossed back and forth between politicians, industry specialists, the scientific community and the media.

In the current environment, even the slightest mistake in the media – no matter how innocuous – can turn into a contentious social media debate, whereas in the past it might have merited just a quick corrective notation as a follow-up.

These days, more often than not everyone gets sullied in the process – even innocent parties caught in the crossfire.  So, it isn’t surprising that as the issue of “fake news” has risen in prominence, fact checking in journalism has taken on more importance than ever.

An IFCN global summit conference held in Madrid Spain in July 2017.

In 2015, the Poynter Institute established its International Fact-Checking Network to support initiatives aimed at ensuring better accuracy and journalistic best practices. In addition, over the past year the New York Times and several other prominent newspapers have brought more fact checkers on board – not merely to verify the information being reported, but also to work in “real time” with journalists – checking breaking news stories for accuracy as they are being produced.

These new fact-checking resources have been added without a lot of fanfare, but it’s a quiet acknowledgement that the “fake news” controversy is one that strikes at the heart of the press’s reputation.

But there’s a significant shortcoming:  The new emphasis on fact-checking is consequential in just one corner of the news universe.  The arena of “news” now extends well beyond traditional outlets to also encompass social media platforms, blogs and a myriad of informational websites that frequently offer a distinct “point of view” in their reporting.

So, while the fact-checking resurgence may help buttress the reputation of “legacy” news organizations such as high-profile newspapers, national TV networks and marquee online news sites, that doesn’t mean it’s reaching into the many other places where people encounter and consume news.

I suspect that the “fake news” phenomenon is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, despite all of the good-faith efforts to keep it in check.

The fundamental problem with newspapers’ online endeavors.

olnIt’s no secret that the newspaper industry has been struggling with finding a lucrative business model to augment or replace the traditional print medium supported by subscriptions and advertising.

The problem is, their efforts are thwarted by market realities at every intersection, setting up the potential for head-on crashes everywhere.

In October, the results of an analysis conducted by several University of Texas researchers were published that illustrate the big challenges involved.

The researchers pinpointed 2007 as the year in which most large newspapers’ online versions had been available for about a decade, meaning that they had become “mature” products. The evaluation looked at the total local online readership of the Top 50 American newspapers, and found that nearly all of them have been stagnant in terms of growth over the past decade.

Even worse, since 2011 more than half of the papers have actually lost online readership.

The issue isn’t that people aren’t going online to consume news; the precipitous drop in print newspaper subscriptions proves otherwise. The problem is that many consumers are going to news aggregator sites – places like Yahoo News, CNN.com and other non-newspaper websites – rather than to sites operated by the newspapers.

That leaves online newspapers attracting disappointing advertising revenues that can’t begin to make up for the loss of those dollars on the print side. To wit, the University of Texas study reported that total newspaper industry digital ad revenues increased only about 15% between 2010 and 2014, going from ~$3 billion to ~$3.5 billion.  That’s pretty paltry.

The problem goes beyond ad revenue concerns too. In a market survey conducted in 2012, two-thirds of newspaper subscribers stated that preferred the print version of their daily newspaper over the web version.

I find that finding totally believable. I am a print subscriber to The Wall Street Journal whereas I read other newspaper fare online.  My daily time spent with the print WSJ ranges from 30 minutes to an hour, and I peruse every section of the paper “linearly.”  It’s an immersive experience.

With online newspaper sites, I hunt for one or two topics, check out the headlines and maybe a story or two, and that’s it. It’s more a “hit and run” operation, and I’m out of there in five minutes or less.

The notion of carefully picking my way through all of the menu items on an online newspaper’s navbar? Forget it.

And with such a tentative relationship with online newspapers, do I want to pay for that online access? Nope.

Magnify that to the entire market, and the web traffic stats show the same thing, which is why online advertising revenues are so underwhelming.

Once again, the optimistic goals of newspaper marketers are running up against cold, hard reality. The fact is, people don’t “read” online in the traditional sense, and they’re quick to jump from place to place, in keeping with the “ADD” most all of us have developed in our online behaviors.

There just isn’t a good way that newspapers can take their product and migrate it to the web without losing readers, losing ad revenue – and indeed, losing the differentiation they’ve built for quality long-form journalism.  And so the conundrum continues …

What about your print vs. online newspaper reading habits?  Are your experiences different from mine?  Please leave a comment for the benefit of other readers.