At a time when many major media outlets are cutting back, trying something new is difficult but necessary for journalists trying to make an impact.
That was the message delivered by Bill Adair, creator and editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking website PolitiFact, who encouraged a crowded room of UGA students to have “the courage to innovate.”
Adair, who also serves as the Washington bureau chief for The Tampa Bay Times, was the speaker of the 34th annual McGill Lecture, which is now part of the McGill Symposium on journalistic courage.
The lecture series was named after Ralph E. McGill, the late editor and publisher of The Atlanta Constitution who challenged segregation in the 1950s and ’60s.
PolitiFact, an arm of The Times, is one of the top political fact-checking operations in the nation. Based on research, PolitiFact reporters rank the statements by politicians and political organizations on the Truth-O-Meter scale from “true” to “false” to “Pants on Fire” for the most egregious false statements. Most statements are ranked somewhere in between.
PolitiFact now has media partners in 11 states, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
This election cycle, fact-checkers like those at PolitiFact are becoming increasingly relevant for sorting out the truth of statements by politicians and political organizations, said -Janice Hume, an associate professor of -journalism.
“Now anyone speaking up in Washington is likely have their claims show up on the Truth-O-Meter,” said Hume.
One sign that the project is successful, Adair said, is that it angers both conservatives and liberals nearly on a daily basis with its fact-checking.
But PolitiFact’s creation and rise was no easy venture.
“At this turbulent time in the history of the media, it takes guts to do something different,” Adair said.
Because traditional sources of revenue for media outlets have dried up due to the rise of the Internet, Adair describes a landscape where most media outlets are in the mode of “consolidate and retreat.”
That means many news organizations are cutting out features rather than adding them.
Most innovation these days, he argued, have come from start-up businesses rather than established outlets.
In fact, The Times invested in PolitiFact at the same time it was cutting back newsroom resources in other areas. Adair chalks that investment up to the organization’s commitment to public service journalism.
Even when the website initially had low traffic, The Times continued to add resources to PolitiFact.
The lessons to take away from PolitiFact’s success, Adair said, was to have newsrooms that “foster creativity,” that take risks and are open to other people’s ideas.
“The time to innovate is now,” he said.