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Pols and blowhards beware: PolitiFact is coming

As the ProJo turns
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  June 9, 2010

The Providence Journal, facing the newspaper industry's twin demons of declining circulation and plummeting advertising revenue, is in an intense period of reinvention.

Over the last couple of years, the paper has shut down its regional bureaus, ramped up its on-line operation, and redesigned the print version — putting all the local news in the A section and relegating most of the national and international news, available elsewhere anyhow, to the B section.

All that activity, it seems, has done little to fix the paper's long-term problems: circulation continues to drop, a smaller staff can only do so much. The ProJo — if still the major player in the local media market — does not have the journalistic heft of its glory years.

But the paper is hardly the only one struggling to find its footing in a difficult environment. Experimentation makes sense. And the ProJo's next major effort may be its most compelling to date.

Newsroom sources say the paper is gearing up to launch a Rhode Island version of PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning initiative that originated with the St. Petersburg Times in Florida in August 2007.

PolitiFact's reporters measure the veracity of statements made by politicians and pundits with a Truth-O-Meter that offers up six ratings: true, mostly true, half true, barely true, false, and — for real whoppers — pants on fire.

Staffers have also combed through candidate Barack Obama's speeches, position papers, and web site to cull over 500 campaign promises and are now measuring the president's progress on their Obameter.

PolitiFact combines journalism's age-old watchdog function with a bit of the pep and attitude of the Internet era: the project's web site is cleverly and cleanly designed, heavy on graphics and pictures, and utterly engaging.

PolitiFact was initially oriented toward national news. But the St. Petersburg Times has joined with the Miami Herald to launch a Florida version of the site. And it has licensed out its Truth-O-Meter to the Austin American-Statesman for a Texas iteration and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a Georgia effort.

The state-level projects are subpages on the larger PolitiFact site, rather than subpages on the sponsoring newspaper's site. But the papers have control of the subpages, can sell advertising on them, and can publish PolitiFact items in their print editions.

The ProJo has employed the fact-checking concept in the past — running boxes that provided checks on the truthfulness of political advertisements. But PolitiFact represents a larger, more sustained commitment to the idea. Newsroom sources say the paper has tapped two well-regarded reporters, Cynthia Needham and C. Eugene Emery, Jr., to staff the project.

And the paper is hoping the effort will pay off. PolitiFact has proven a popular feature elsewhere — with the public, if not with politicians — and is beginning to attract advertising.

Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact, told Poynter Online last month that he hopes to have franchises in all 50 states in time. The franchise metaphor is purposeful — Adair said he has taken quality control lessons from the fast-food industry, with a heavy emphasis on training.

A manual compiled by PolitiFact speaks to its attempt to combine rigorous journalism with a breezy, online feel. The "safety instructions" for the Truth-O-Meter:

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Related: A media market splintered, Meet Evan Thomas, Jocktail Party, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Barack Obama, Barack Obama, Headlines,  More more >
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