"Fact-checking has become a powerful and important new form of accountability journalism around the world."
Bill Adair, Knight professor of the practice of journalism and public policy at Duke University and creator of PolitiFact, pointed out the growing numbers of fact-checking groups, in his opening remarks at the Global Fact-Checking Summit in London last week.
Fact-checking sites now hold politicians to account in countries from Mexico to Northern Ireland and Russia, but to continue to do so they face a challenge familiar to many other media sites: making their journalism pay.
Alexios Mantzarlis, managing editor of Italian site Pagella Politica, led a session on making fact-checking sustainable, exploring different revenue streams and offering tips for journalists.
"The million dollar question starts with a problem: fact-checking as a product, why can't we sell it?"
He said the root of the problem is that fact-checking is a public good, "or at least we think it is", in an industry which is still trying to figure out its business model.
And the "non-partisan, non-specialist, and non-kitten” media, which don't have the very niche or very broad audiences needed to satisfy advertisers, are unlikely to be profitable under the current model focussing on traffic.
So how are fact-checkers making it work? Mantzarlis shared the findings of a survey of fact-checking organisations, which showed that 70 per cent of respondents were funded primarily by foundations, while 17 per cent were part of a traditional media outlet and 13 per cent operated for profit.
Some 19 out of the 29 fact-checking sites surveyed said 75 per cent or more of their funding came from foundations, 4 received all of their budget from a parent media organisation, and only 3 got 20 per cent or more from "earned income" – providing training, consulting, or selling content for example.
As the majority of respondents relied heavily on foundations to keep their team going, the summit also looked at alternative options for funding. Here are some tips from the day for funding independent journalism projects.
Getting readers to pay
Running a crowdfunding campaign is one alternative for financing a specific project, and one that has been adopted with open arms by the fact-checking community.
PolitiFact crowdfunded its live fact-check of the State of the Union address, for example, while Pagella Politica reached their Kickstarter goal for an animated fact-checking series ahead of deadline.
In the UK, Full Fact is one of the recent crowdfunding success stories, raising £33,094 to fact-check this year's general election, well over the initial target of £25,000. Full Fact's Mevan Babakar shared some advice on what makes a crowdfunding campaign successful.
"I think crowdfunding works best when there's more public appetite for your work," she said, outlining how for Full Fact this would be around a general election or a referendum when "people are the most frustrated" with politics.
Defining the scope of a campaign and proposal are also key, and Babakar's advice is to be able to explain everything in one sentence. If that's not the case, start again.
But one of the elements that can make or break a crowdfunding campaign is often one that gets underestimated the most – marketing.
"It's the difference between a campaign that wins and one that doesn't. It probably needs three times more marketing than you're thinking. I was refreshing our page every single day."
Having a 10 per cent donation lined up and not publicising your campaign until that milestone is reached is also good practice, she said, as people usually prefer to give to campaigns that already have donations.
"You're trying to build momentum at all times. And you're going to get a lot of attention at the start and you're going to get a lot of attention at the end, but the middle is a very scary place," she added.
Selling content and expertise
Aside from the crowdfunding campaign, Pagella Politica is supported by selling fact-checks to media outlets, explained Mantzarlis.
"[Publishers] often no longer have the staff, the in-house expertise to do the time consuming work of fact-checking," he said.
Pagella Politica brings in the majority of its revenue from contracts, selling their fact-checks to radio stations, magazines and to the press.
The team packages their fact-checks individually for each media organisation they work with, adapting formats and thinking about how their collections or pieces would fit in with the rest of the editorial offering.
And as barely a handful of fact-checkers make more than a fifth of their income from their content or expertise, as outlined in the survey, Mantzarlis thinks other sites aren't selling their work as much as they should.
"When did it become ok for valuable content... to be just free to use, for other companies to profit from?” he asked.
It is a question that continues to haunt the industry.
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