Bill Adair: Rethinking the story form
The creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism project PolitiFact talks about how he created an innovative way to pursue his newspaper’s traditional institutional mission.
June 21, 2011 | Newspapers are in trouble: readership is plummeting; advertising is disappearing; journalists are being laid off or are leaving the profession.
For St. Petersburg Times Washington bureau chief Bill Adair, his belief in the newspaper’s watchdog function outweighed the grim environment in which he found himself.
So instead of quitting the business, Adair persuaded the St. Petersburg Times leadership to try an experiment. The result was PolitiFact, a website dedicated to fact-checking politicians’ claims.
The site checks out promises and claims of both politicians and pundits, and is written in a cheeky, breezy style typified by the Truth-O-Meter and its dreaded “Pants on Fire” designation for outright falsehoods.
The project won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, and since then the newspaper has “franchised” PolitiFact and now works with partners in nine states.
Adair spoke to Faith & Leadership about the process of working within an existing institution to create a new way to pursue its mission. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: So how did this idea get hatched?
It was both personal and journalistic. Personal in that a lot of my friends were getting out of journalism about five years ago, and I came to a point in my career where I had to say, “Should I stay or should I go?” -- to quote the Clash.
I decided that I would not get out. For the kinds of things I like to do, this is just the most fulfilling job I can dream of. I felt, “OK, I’m going to stay and I’m going to be involved in new media.”
Then in 2007, as we started to decide what we would do for covering the presidential campaign, I went to my editors with a proposal to do PolitiFact.
The idea for PolitiFact actually dated back to when I was in college and I did my senior thesis on [political] fact-checking, and I said that the media needed to do more fact-checking, particularly of TV ads, because they were a source of a lot of misinformation.
But interestingly, I never really practiced what I preached. When I was covering the Republican National Convention in 2004, there was a speech by Zell Miller, who was the Democratic senator from Georgia and the most prominent Democrat to endorse President Bush.
Miller talked about how John Kerry had voted against defense projects and how he was weak on defense. At the time, I was at the convention, and I thought, “Well, that’s not true.” But I didn’t do anything about it.
I always regretted that. So as we started to think about what we wanted to do for the presidential campaign, I went to the editors with a proposal that, instead of covering the campaign in a traditional way, I would start a fact-checking website.
I guess you could say lesson one is if you want to try something new, you’ve got to have one person who really believes in it. I really started pushing to do this, and I did sketches of what it would look like and I wrote memos on what shape it should take and how it should work. I went to the executive editor, Neil Brown, and said we should do this.
It also takes a culture that embraces something new, a culture that’s willing to say, “OK, let’s put some resources into that and try it, even though it’s a little bit different than what we’ve done before.”
I think the people at the top need to be willing to change how things are done. I’m fortunate enough to work at a place where the people at the top were willing to change how things are done. That’s the biggest thing -- then you need somebody with some energy who can keep pushing.
I think the Times has always done good presidential coverage, but they were willing to sacrifice the usual.
Q: To give up the sure thing?
Yes. To try this new thing and also to try something completely new in terms of a product that would be published first on the Web and also would be housed in a separate content management system.
I had no idea about any of these things when I came up with the idea, but I quickly learned that you’ve got to have a big database, and we decided that we would do it outside the normal structure of the St. Pete Times’ Web content management system. That takes a real commitment on the part of the IT department.
So at every point there was a willingness to try something new and to do things in ways that broke with tradition.
There was a willingness: “We’ll build it ourselves.” OK. “We’ll use this open platform.” OK. “We’ll house it outside our servers.” OK.
There was a real spirit of innovation that fueled it. So one reporter with an idea then got great support from other people, from the Web architect of PolitiFact to the head of IT. So I would say it took an open culture.
Q: PolitiFact broke with tradition, but in some ways it adheres to the greatest tradition of journalism, right?
It is accountability journalism, and we’ve been doing accountability journalism forever -- holding public officials accountable for their words. So in that sense it was very much in our wheelhouse.
So the concept of accountability journalism isn’t new, but the execution of how we do it is. The kind of reporting that goes into a PolitiFact item is deeper and more thorough than in a typical news story, but it’s very much along the lines of what journalists have been doing for years. We’ve just created a new forum for it.
Q: PolitiFact has a serious mission, but the site has an attitude, more like a personal blog than an institutional site. When you find out a politician has actually lied, for example, there’s a little animated icon of flames, and it says “Pants on Fire.” How did you get approval for that injection of humor?
Well, the idea for lightening it up a bit was actually [chair and CEO of the Times Publishing Co.] Paul Tash’s idea. Seriously.
It was Tash who said to make sure that the site doesn’t come across as too serious or boring, and have a little fun with it.
As we kicked around what we wanted to do with the meter, we realized we wanted a rating for the most ridiculous falsehood. “Pants on Fire,” the name, was [Kevin McGeever, the Web editor’s] idea.