Just in time for the inauguration, the St. Petersburg Times expanded its Politifact operation to launch the Obameter, a running tally of the 510 promises made by Barack Obama on the campaign trail, and his progress toward keeping them. Each promise is labeled as “Kept,” “Broken,” “Stalled,” “In the Works,” “No Action,” or “Compromise.” Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact and the Washington bureau chief for the St. Petersburg Times, oversees the project, which has a staff of “one and a half editors and two and a half reporters.” CJR spoke with Adair about how the project has fared in its first month.
Katia Bachko: You’ve been up and running for a few weeks now. How’s it going?
Bill Adair: We launched on January 15 and never really did traffic projections because we just didn’t have an idea what sort of audience our Obameter would appeal to. Our previous record had been somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter million page views a day which we had ran after the Republican Convention for a couple of days, and we just blew the doors off that. Within a week of our launch, our traffic was 400,000-plus for a good week running. We didn’t think we would sustain that, but it’s been much more successful than I ever dreamed.
KB: Well, it’s such a catchy concept. Is that why do you think people are drawn to it?
BA: I think people like scorecards. People like to know how he’s doing, and we provide that on any given day. You don’t have to wait until the end of one hundred days to assess the Obama presidency. You can check back once a day if you want and find out. I think that we have found the most objective measurement possible.
It has appealed to both sides of the political spectrum. We hear from many Obama supporters who are trying to talk us out of our “broken” promises and compromises. Then, we hear from many conservatives who are trying to get us to move some of the items that are “In the Works” to “Promise Broken.” People care about these readings. It’s the right form of new journalism at the right time.
KB: So, how does it work?
BA: When we created the database of promises, we put dates with each item of when each item comes up for a check. If we look at something and it’s a long-term promise, then we put a date of December 31, 2009. If it’s something that involves a budgetary commitment, we put a date of February 1. His first proposed budget will be coming up very soon. On any given day, we can look in the database to make sure that we’ve done checks on all of the promises that have this date or older.
We look at the date in the database, and then go to the department that’s involved in the promise and say: Has there been progress? You’re catching us right at the beginning, so we don’t have much of a routine yet.
KB: Are you going to update it with promises he makes as president?
BA: We’re going to keep it to campaign promises because that’s a finite set. If you start getting into new promises, then it’s like moving the goalposts, and we decided that the idea of campaign promises is something that readers can understand and I think it would become very confusing if you kept changing it. This is part of the challenge of creating a new form of journalism. We’re not only creating a new form of Web journalism, but we’re creating a whole new process that goes beyond [the] traditional.
This is new and we’re writing the rule book as we go. It’s not like they taught us this in journalism school, so by necessity we are creating the guidelines as we go. I think we’ve done a very good job at that and we’ve been fair and even-handed. We’ve made a couple of calls that I think we’ve regretted and then we changed them, and we have the latitude to change things. So it’s a work in progress but I think it holds up very well.
KB: Some of these promises are hard to judge, in part because they have fuzzy verbs, like promise 236, “Champion the importance of arts education.”