DETROIT, MI — Josh Mandel didn’t just lose his 2012 bid to unseat Sherrod Brown and claim one of Ohio’s spots in the US Senate. The state treasurer also took home the “Pants on Fire” crown for his putrid ratings on PolitiFact Ohio’s “Truth-O-Meter.”
Statewide campaigns are heating up again in Ohio this year, but it’s unclear if a Pants on Fire “winner” will be crowned: the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the state’s largest paper, has ended its partnership with PolitiFact.com. The Plain Dealer and its digital affiliate, though, are very much still in the factchecking business. Say goodbye to the Truth-O-Meter; say hello to “Truth in Numbers.”
The variations between the two models point to real differences of approach within the booming factchecking movement, though both Truth in Numbers and the Truth-O-Meter have faced some criticism for how they attempt to attract readers’ attention.
But for the Cleveland news outlet, going it alone was a business decision as much as an editorial one—and the move may reflect a broader tension, in a media ecosystem focused on web traffic, between seeking partnerships and building your own digital brand online.
News that The Plain Dealer and its online sibling, Northeast Ohio Media Group, would be parting ways with PolitiFact came in a January column by reader representative Ted Diadiun. Diadiun devoted much of the column to criticizing the Truth-O-Meter, which grades politicians’ statements on a scale from “true” to “pants on fire,” as a “gimmick” that drew attention away from the research and analysis found in PolitiFact posts.
But those complaints “did not figure in the decision” to part company, he wrote. And in any case, not everyone in Cleveland shares Diadiun’s perspective.
“I loved our experience with PolitiFact,” said Chris Quinn, vice president of content at NEOMG and formerly an assistant managing editor at The Plain Dealer, where he participated in Truth-O-Meter rulings. Quinn highlighted the transparency and cross-market collaboration of PolitiFact’s model—and even the “the eye-catching gadgetry of the Truth-O-Meter.” (NEOMG was created simultaneously with layoffs at The Plain Dealer last summer; both the print and digital companies contribute to Cleveland.com and to the print newspaper.)
In fact, Quinn credits PolitiFact Ohio and those Truth-O-Meter ratings with a major role in the 2012 Senate campaign. “Mandel received so many ‘false’ and ‘pants on fire’ ratings that the ratings themselves became news and focused a statewide spotlight on his inability or unwillingness to tell the truth,” he said. “He did not like that attention and eventually altered his campaign, reducing the number of false statements.” (Some examples of the Ohio media focus on Mandel’s accuracy are here, here, and here; there was also a counter-narrative in conservative media that challenged PolitiFact Ohio’s non-partisan bonafides.)
Editors in Cleveland sometimes did struggle to choose a rating, Quinn acknowledged, and that did affect their approach. “We ultimately learned what statements worked best with the Truth-O-Meter and steered our rulings to those, leaving other statements off the table, not to be factchecked.”
But the main concern, he said, was about business strategy. “Ultimately, what did not work for us was putting the fruits of our labor on another web site”—that is, on PolitiFact.com.* “We want visiting our site to be part of the DNA of Northeast Ohio,” Quinn said. “With our increased investment in the digital space last August, it no longer made sense to have our work appear on any other site.”
The PolitiFact Ohio page is still up, and PolitiFact is seeking a new “on-the-ground partner” in the state to factcheck state and local government, said editor Angie Drobnic Holan. As for the “gimmicky” nature of the Truth-o-Meter, she said, the approach is “fun and easy to understand. Readers quickly grasp our straightforward ratings system. Our full reports and online source lists provide them with details, nuance, and transparency.” She declined to say how much The Plain Dealer had paid to license the PolitiFact franchise; in general, “costs depend on the size of the news organization, the specific market, and other details,” she said. (Disclosure: PolitiFact’s new PunditFact project is supported by the Democracy Fund, which is also a major supporter of the United States Project.)
Meanwhile, readers in Ohio have now seen the first couple installments of Truth in Numbers, the new approach to factchecking at The Plain Dealer/NEOMG. Appearing less frequently than PolitiFact posts, TiN differs in a few notable ways—and offers what might be called a gimmick of its own.