This Week in Review: A referendum on fact-checking, and the Times Co. in transition
[This review was originally posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on Dec. 23, 2011.]
Rethinking political fact-checking: PolitiFact, the fact-checking organization launched in 2007 by the St. Petersburg Times,named its lie of the year this week, and the choice wasn’t a popular one: The Democratic claim that Republicans voted to end Medicare was widely denounced among liberal observers (and some conservative ones) as not actually being a lie. As the Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen noted, the Medicare claim only finished third in PolitiFact’s reader voting behind two Republican lies, leading to the widespread belief, as Benen and the New York Times’ Paul Krugman expressed, that PolitiFact chose a Democratic claim this year to create an appearance of balance and placate its conservative critics who believe it’s biased against them.
This sort of liberal/conservative bias sniping goes on all the time in political media, but this issue got a bit more interesting from a future-of-news perspective when it became an entree into a discussion of the purpose of the burgeoning genre of “fact-checking” news itself. At Mother Jones, Adam Serwer argued that the reason fact-checking sites exist in the first place is as a correction to the modern sense of news objectivity as a false sense of balance, as opposed to determining the truth — something he said even the fact-checking sites are now succumbing to.
Several others decried fact-checking operations as being, as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald put it, a “scam of neutral expertise.” Forbes’ John McQuaid said PolitiFact “is trying to referee a fight that, frankly, doesn’t really need a referee.” Gawker’s Jim Newell was more sweeping: “why does anyone care what this gimmicky website has to say, ever?” He argued that fact-checking sites’ designations like “pants on fire” and “Pinocchios” are easily digestible gimmicks that lend them a false air of authority, obscuring their flaws in judgment. And the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein called the fact-checking model “unsustainable,” because it relies on maintaining legitimacy in the eyes of both sides of a hopelessly fractured public.
At The New Republic, Alec MacGillis made the point that fact-checking “invests far too much weight and significance in a handful of arbiters who, every once in a while, will really blow a big call.” Instead, he said, fact-checking should be the job of every reporter, not just a specialized few. Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker,” responded by saying operations like his aren’t intended to be referees or replace reporting, but to complement it. PolitiFact’s Bill Adair stood by the organization’s choice and said fact-checking “is growing and thriving because people who live outside the partisan bubbles want help sorting out the truth.”
An abrupt change at the Times: New York Times Co. CEO Janet Robinson surprised Times staffers late last week with the sudden announcement of her retirement, and some details have trickled out since then: Reuters reported that she’ll get a $15 million exit package and that she and company chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. clashed at times, and the Wall Street Journal reported (paywall) that much of the dissatisfaction with Robinson was over her digital strategy. The Atlantic’s Adam Clark Estes summed up the reporting and speculation on Robinson’s forced departure by saying that she didn’t get along with her bosses, and the Times felt it needed a technologist.
With no successor in sight, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram gave the blueprint of what he would do with the paper: Scale back the paywall, and go deeper into apps, events, and e-books. CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis proposed a “reverse meter” for the Times — pay up front, then get credit for reading and interacting that delays your next bill. He acknowledged that it wouldn’t work in practice, but said it illustrates the idea that paywalls should reward loyal customers, not punish them. Ingram picked up on the idea and threw out a few more possibilities.
In reality, the Times is in the process of making quite a different set of moves: It’s talking about selling off its 16 regional newspapers, not including the Boston Globe. Media analyst Ken Doctor broke down the development, explaining that the Times Co. is slimming down its peripheral ventures to focus on the Times itself, particularly its digital operation. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds said the possible deal marks a thaw in the newspaper transaction market.
Looking back and forward for news: We’re getting into the year-in-review season, and Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has started it off by releasing its annual analysis of the year’s media coverage. They found that this year, just like 2010, was dominated by coverage of the economy, though the Occupy movement emerged as a strong subtheme, and foreign news was a major area of coverage, thanks in large part to the Arab Spring movements. They also examined media coverage in comparison with public interest, finding that journalists moved on from big stories more quickly than the public.
The Lab went big with its year-end feature, publishing more than a dozen predictions for the news world in 2012 from a variety of news and tech luminaries. You can check out that link for the whole list, but here are a few of the trends across the predictions:
— Apps. Nicholas Carr predicted that “appification” would be the dominant force influencing media and news media next year, opening new arenas for paid content, particularly through “versioning.” Tim Carmody said e-readers will take a big leap at the same time, led by Amazon’s Kindle. Amy Webb predicted the rise of several sophisticated types of apps, and Gina Masullo Chen envisioned our apps leading us into a more personalized news consumption environment.
— Big institutions make a stand. It may be in a continued state of decline, as Martin Langeveld predicted, but Dan Kennedy saw the beginnings of a semi-revival for the newspaper business, accompanied by more paywalls and an feistier defense of their value. On a more ominous front, Dan Gillmor warned of tightening content controls by an oligopoly of copyright holders, government forces, search engines, and others.
— Collaboration and curation. Emily Bell saw an increasing realization by news organizations of the importance of networks as part of the reporting process, Burt Herman described the continued emergence of a real-time, collaborative news network, and Paul Bradshaw and Carrie Brown Smith also saw collaboration as central next year. Vadim Lavrusik saw an increasingly sophisticated curation as part of that news environment.
Reading roundup: This is the last review of the year, so here are the bits and pieces to keep up with during the holidays over the next two weeks:
— Congress’ hearings on the Internet censorship bill SOPA adjourned last Friday, with the vote delayed until next year. Cable news finally began acknowledging the story, and the document company Scribd staging an online protest. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick continued to write about the bill’s dangers, looking at the ability it gives private companies to shut down any website and the way it sets up the legal framework for broader censorship.
— The Wall Street Journal reported on the continued high prices of e-books, a trend that drew criticism from GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and paidContent’s Laura Hazard Owen. Elsewhere, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo and Wired’s Tim Carmody engaged in an interesting discussion about Amazon and independent bookstore — Manjoo praised Amazon for putting independent bookstores into decline, Carmody argued that Amazon has its eyes on a bigger prize, and Manjoo talked about how independent bookstores can fight back.
— A big development in the WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning cases: Wired reported that U.S. government officials found chat logs with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange on the laptop of Manning, the Army private charged with leaking information to WikiLeaks. This could be critical in the U.S.’ possible prosecution of Assange if the logs show that he induced Manning to leak the documents.
— The Journal Register Co.’s Steve Buttry wrote a series of posts on the practical details of the company’s Digital First approach, looking at its journalistic workflow, values, editor’s roles, and ways to think like a digital journalist. Meanwhile, Mashable’s Lauren Indvik looked at the Atlantic’s transformation into a Digital First publication.
— Some great discussion about solution-oriented journalism this week: David Bornstein made a case for solution journalism at the New York Times, and Free Press’ Josh Stearns put together a fantastic set of readings on solution journalism. NYU grad student Blair Hickman also shared a syllabus for a solution journalism unit.