Updated with a video on PolitiFact Guide to Fact-checking

The idea for this column came to me last March; I was flying back from Stockholm. Schibsted, the Norwegian media group I work for, had asked me to be part of the jury for its yearly Schibsted Journalism Award. I was both honored and curious to be part of such a delicate process. The group’s publications, in Scandinavia and abroad, submitted entries in several categories: best storytelling, best innovative entry, best scoop. Altogether, 27 entries were compiled in a hefty kit sent by Fedex to each member of the jury; the kit included a couple of binders — facsimile of original pages, translation in English, CDs, memory stick, etc. Serious work. Then, we gathered in Stockholm to select the nominees and the winners.

Of course I’m bound to secrecy, I’m not going to be specific about the discussions.  But I feel an urge to write about the event because I was surprised by the level of journalistic ambition
demonstrated by many of the entries. Among them were several investigative pieces: a bribery scandal in Russia, a huge Bank fraud in Norway, or revelations of a hidden part of Norwegian war history, just to name a few. We were faced with difficult choices — happily.  On my way back to Paris, I thought this was the perfect illustration of how, true, genuine journalism differentiates itself from blogs — even good ones, simply because news organization will invest time and money in the genuine article, so to speak.

To make my point, I’ll just focus on the cost, yes, in euros or dollars, of such journalism. It could sound like a trivial way to assess editorial performance but I believe money remains a much-needed fuel for good journalism.

One of the nominees for the Schibsted Journalism Award featured amazing reporting by the Swedish daily Aftonbladet titled Do we dare to get old in Sweden (see the story and video here).  It led to a series of in-depth reports about the failing care system for the elderly. Tips, letters, calls to the newsroom triggered an ambitious journalistic project. The job involved in-depth research on the root of the problem and an undercover operation in which a 28 years-old reporter transformed herself into an 82 years-old lady (see below) using professional movie make-up. In total, about 100 people were interviewed for this story, 20 cases of outrageous shortcomings in the public care system were unveiled. Needless to say, it became a national issue in Sweden.

How much did it cost, roughly? Well, Maria Trägard, project manager at Aftonbladet, sent me manpower data. Altogether, a team of 10 people were involved: 3 reporters, 3 photographers, a project manager, 3 journalists from the web, plus an assistant editor-in-chief. The cumulated workload totaled 4 months-persons: the senior reporter, Monica Gunne, took most it by working full time for two months doing research, field work, and writing.  Starting with the manpower data, there are many ways to estimate the project’s total cost. In France, the “loaded” cost of a journalist (social taxes and office expenses included) is about 70,000 euros ($98,000) per year. This translates into €23,000 ($32,000), just in manpower costs for the Aftonbladet investigative piece. We can add technical expenses (for example, the make-up artist required to age the young reporter cost about 4000 euros). To sum up, by most European standards, the Getting old in Sweden story might have cost the paper about €30,000 ($42,000). Now, if you base the estimate on the loaded cost figures of a newsroom such as the New York Times’, the tab would have run above €35,000 ($50,000).

In short, you can expect to spend around  €30k and €40k for prize winning grade investigative piece. As a result, such a project must be planned like a military operation — not all newsrooms know to manage this.

Does this kind of effort pays for itself ? Thanks for asking, that’s a dumb great question. Of course, you can monitor the Aftonbladet’s increase in copy sales as the scandal unfolds. Speaking of revenue, what about tying the price of advertising to the uniqueness of the editorial content? Such long-planned investigations could justify a rise in ad rates. TV has been doing this for a long time. When I mention “dynamic pricing structure” for print advertising to French business people, they invariably roll their eyes, preferring the cozy metrics of how many appointments their sales people are able to harvest.
It is pointless, then, to run a precise analysis of the great story’s impact on Aftonbladet’s revenue numbers. We simply must consider that such journalistic achievement is part of Aftonbladet’s very fabric, a component of its image and stature. This works for the reader’s mind and for the advertising community as well: advertisers are more willing to entrust their clients’ image to a rewarding environment. (This also shows why it is critical to have, once in a while, editorial people pitching their trade to the ad guys).

Investigative reporting isn’t, by far, the only category able to draw a lot of attention. Looking at the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winners list for 2009, I spotted this:

… and I called Bill Adair, the St. Petersburg Times Washington Bureau Chief and editor of PolitiFact. “A year or so before the Presidential campaign, we were looking for new ideas”, he explained. “We had in mind something that happened during the 2004 Republican National Convention”. In his keynote address, Senator Zell Miller criticized John Kerry’s Senate voting record, claiming the Democratic nominee was weak on defense. It was big deal then since Miller was himself a renegade Democrat who chose to support George W. Bush. “Miller’s assertions were completely false, but none of us in the media actually fact-checked it. (…). PolitiFact is a kind of redemption for past mistakes”, jokes Bill Adair. It works as follow: each day, the  staff (5-6 full time, plus occasional contributors from the St Petersburg Times) picks about three subjects a day, using one criteria: “he/she said this”. They fact check the statement, eventually rated using the Truth-O-Meter’s five grades, from good to (really) bad :


Each time, a thorough article documents the fact-checking process and explains the rating. The site is brilliantly executed: the database, now close to a thousand facts, allows multiple indexing by subjects, people, and, of course level of truthfulness. As expected, I searched “Obama/Pants on fire” label; it’s here
and its quite interesting to read, especially to French viewers, since a widely quoted part of the interview given by Barack Obama to the French TV Network Canal+ about he Muslims turned out to be completely bogus (and unnoticed).

Below is a video in which Bill Adair explains how PolitiFact is fact-checking informations.

I see bean counters whispering: 3 stories a day for a staff of 5? Isn’t there any some productivity issue here? I don’t think so. Checking the accuracy of facts, quotes, figures can be extremely time consuming. Sometimes, reporters of PolitiFact will spend hours in research that will end up nowhere, simply because the information is unverifiable. How much the St Petersburg Times spent to win its Pulitzer prize ? Probably between $0.6 and $1m a year. Bill Adair was vague on financial facts.  The SPT is owned by the Poynter Institute, a famous journalism school; as a privately held non-profit institution, it doesn’t disclose any financial information.

As with Aftonbladet, the Swedish paper, it’s impossible to measure the SPT’s PolitiFact economic impact. But Bill Adair and his staff undoubtedly created a new journalistic genre: treating the political news cycle simply according to a true/false rating system supported by thorough journalistic research. PolitiFact is considering an extension to other news categories, such as local news at the state level. (The concept can actually apply to many areas…)

What makes the value of PolitiFact — and of its Pulitzer Prize — is precisely its focus on small but high quality output. That’s the opposite of the dominant part of the internet culture where many sites tends to publish first and check later (on their best days). Performance is measured by the level of controversy created more than by the information value.  In physics, it is called the signal-to-noise ratio; it compares the level of a desired signal (in that case: genuine journalism) to the level of background noise that tends to corrupt the signal. — FF

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