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Fact-checkers compete in a crowded market

They need to think like marketers and business people to win financial support

Editors note: This article was originally published on Entrepreneurial Journalism, created by James Breiner. You can sign up for his newsletter here.

The International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute held its Global Fact 8 conference this past week. I was on a panel that discussed the question, “Fact-checking as a product: Why can’t we sell it?”.

The moderator was Gilberto Scofield Jr., marketing and relationship manager at Agencia Lupa in Brazil, and the other panelists were Patricia Torres-Burd, managing director at Media Development Investment Fund; Giovanni Zagni, director at Pagella Politica/Facta.news in Italy; and Rahul Namboori, co-founder and editorial head at FactCrescendo in India.

The following is a summary of my comments.

Gilberto asked me for my recommendations about revenue streams and business models to make fact-checking sustainable. These were my comments.

It’s a marketplace

Top row, from left: Gilberto Scofield Jr., James Breiner, Patricia Torres-Burd; bottom row, Rahul Namboori and Giovanni Zagni.

I would ask you to think of this digital media world that you’re working in as a marketplace. It’s a marketplace of information subject to the laws of supply and demand. I know that many of you will cringe at that word marketplace. You probably think of yourselves as a public service, not as a business. But you are a business.

In this marketplace of information, you have a product, you are competing for the attention of people, and you are competing for financial support from various people with money.

The title of this panel is, Why can’t we sell it? Well, I think you have to answer three basic questions first.

  1. Who are your customers? (There isn’t just one type; there are many different segments.)
  2. What do they need and want? What do they value? (Do you really know? Why do you think you know?)
  3. How can you create products they value and get them to pay for it?

The customers. So, what do we mean by who are your customers? You might think of your target market as everyone who can benefit from trustworthy, reliable information about issues in society. But really, you have many different potential customers for your information, various segments of the population, different education levels, income levels, races, ethnicities, and so on. 

And then there is another potential group of customers. You are competing for people with money, and that could be foundations, and nonprofits, and NGOs within your own country. These organizations might value your product.  

Customer needs. So, what do we mean by what do customers need and want, what do they value.

It’s a process of finding out what’s really on their minds. You need to ask them. You need to interview them. And then you need to test various products in the media marketplace. Don’t assume you know what people want. Ask them. Find out.

Another way of framing the question is to ask them what they are passionate about. What cause would they carry a sign for, as Irene McKisson of Arizona Luminaria likes to describe it.

Much of fact-checking focuses on the debates going on among members of the political class, who select the issues they want to talk about, and who spend time pontificating about their own views and attacking their opponents. 

If all you are doing is fact-checking the political class, you may be missing a huge part of your potential market. If covid-19 taught us anything, it’s that fact-checking can be more of a public service by providing information about what vaccines are, how they work, where can I get vaccinated, and so on. 

Create value. And finally, what do we mean by creating products that your customers value. It’s a process of research, experimentation, and testing. After doing your research, you have to create products that might satisfy your potential customers’ demands. Put them out there in the digital marketplace. Measure the response. Make adjustments. Try again.

I know from working with Agencia Lupa that they found a market for news literacy programs. Many ordinary people and many media development organizations with money wanted to know, how do we identify disinformation or misinformation. And Agencia Lupa discovered a big market for news literacy training, and that has become a big source of revenue for them.

So to sum up, if you want to get people to pay for your product, you first need to identify who your potential customers are, then you need to find out what they really want and need, and then you need to create products to satisfy those needs.

Fact-checking is an important public service. And there is a huge demand in the information marketplace for trustworthy, reliable information. If you can be the supplier of that scarce product, you can find customers willing to pay.

Photo by Headway on Unsplash


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