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It’s been quiet around here for a while. There’s a good reason. It’s called PolitiFact and it marks a major shift in my career.
What is PolitiFact?
The site is a simple, old newspaper concept that’s been fundamentally redesigned for the web. We’ve taken the political “truth squad” story, where a reporter takes a campaign commercial or a stump speech, fact checks it and writes a story. We’ve taken that concept, blown it apart into it’s fundamental pieces, and reassembled it into a data-driven website covering the 2008 presidential election.
The whole site is inspired by Adrian Holovaty’s manifesto on the fundamental way newspaper websites need to change. Adrian’s main theme was that certain kinds of newspaper content have consistent pieces that could be better served to the reader from a database instead of a newspaper story. I built PolitiFact with that in mind.
If you think about it, a statement from a politician has consistent pieces. It has a speaker, that speaker has a political party, the statement has a subject and a forum in which they said it. After we fact-check that statement, we assign a ruling to it, summing up the veracity of what they say on a scale from true to false to pants on fire (a personal favorite). All of those things become fields in a database. Statements are all in their own database, and we also are writing more traditional stories on the statements. And those articles have some common pieces, like a byline.
We’re experimenting with greater transparency, by listing our sources for each statement and story. We’re taking into account that YouTube is going to be a significant factor in this election by embedding YouTube videos of statements when we can find them.
PolitiFact was born when St. Petersburg Times Washington Bureau Chief Bill Adair called me in very late May with an idea he had. He wanted to take the “truth squad” idea and expand it. And he wondered if we could somehow use databases with this idea. He didn’t know how we could do that, just that we should, and that was why he was calling me. I was knee deep in learning Django, the rapid development web framework, and immediately knew we could use Django to make this happen. Based on our conversation, I quick sketched out a series of related tables — models in Django parlance — and PolitiFact was born.
Learning Django has been a transformative experience for me. PolitiFact is the first Django app I’ve completed, and it won’t be the last. Not even close. Before this, I’d never developed a website before — I don’t count installing WordPress on a hosting account as developing a website — or done anything in Python. Learning Django was a challenge for someone like me with no programming experience, but the framework puts incredible abilities into your hands once you learn what you are doing. The documentation is a truly remarkable resource: It is a monument to it’s quality that 98 percent of PolitiFact comes from the documentation.
Beyond being an experiment in journalism or web development, PolitiFact is an experiment in entrepreneurship. We’ve developed a product that uses reporting labor from the St. Petersburg Times and our sister company Congressional Quarterly to create something that doesn’t originate in print. All the talk and all the focus lately in web journalism circles is on local, local, local and to some degree they’re right. But there’s also something to be said for just putting a good idea on the web that people might find useful. We think we’ve done that. Now the important part: how are people going to respond? We have no idea. We’re anxious to find out.
Credit where credit is due: I took Bill’s idea and translated it into the Django framework, but there’s a lot more that went into PolitiFact than that. I stopped learning HTML in 1998, so all the credit for how PolitiFact looks belongs to Martin Frobisher. From the Times IT department, Charles Goddard has shifted from being a java nerd to a python whiz with alarming speed; Dave Brown has built an infrastructure that boggles my mind (18 million page views an hour!); Ed Nicholson’s energy has been invaluable; and we’d still be dead in the water if Tim Aston hadn’t taken a leap of faith to let me run with Django on little more than a pitch and an ugly demo model. From the news side, Bill Adair has been equal parts salesman, cheerleader and evangelist, and PolitiFact would have withered and died long ago without his commitment. And I would never have been given the time to make this work if it weren’t for ME/Web Christine Montgomery and Executive Editor Neil Brown not listening to my technobabble and seeing the end product.