Why local broadcaster Tegna is making a big bet on its fact-checking vertical Verify

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Local news broadcaster Tegna plans to roll out its fact-checking and debunking vertical, Verify, into a standalone brand by this summer, and draw on local expertise among the 49 newsrooms across the country it serves.

Tegna will create a number of digital properties under the Verify brand, including a dedicated website and email newsletter projected to debut mid-Q2, said Adam Ostrow, chief digital officer at Tegna. Verify, which was created in 2015, will also expand its social media presence, after creating a popular Snapchat Discover page, and consider moving into streaming video on connected TV platforms like Roku and Amazon’s Fire TV.

Verify executives hope the expansion will improve consumers’ trust in local news, Ostrow said. Putting Verify’s brand in different formats and onto new platforms will allow its fact-checking content to reach more people in local communities vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation, which is false information spread regardless of intent.

According to a 2019 study by the Knight Foundation, 45% of people in the U.S. said they trust local news outlets “a great deal” or “quite a lot,” whereas only 31% said as much about national news outlets.

Tegna makes money from the articles and videos Verify produces by distributing them on its stations’ sites and selling pre-roll and display ads against them. Verify’s Snapchat Discover page, which launched in the summer of 2020, also makes money via a revenue partnership with Snapchat. However, going beyond these monetization efforts “isn’t the initial focus” of Verify’s roll-out, Ostrow said. The priority for now is to continue building the brand and the audience in other formats and platforms.

The decision to roll out Verify into its own brand comes after a boom of interest in its fact-checking: traffic on Verify’s content increased more than 400% in 2020 on Tegna’s station websites, according to the company, and attracted an average of more than 2 million unique visitors per month.

Among Verify’s top 50 performing stories from March through October 2020, 70% were COVID-19 or social justice related, according to Ostrow. During the fourth quarter of 2020 when it seemed all eyes were on the presidential election, 40% of the top stories were not political. Verify’s videos tackle claims like: Do COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips? Were bricks provided at George Floyd protests in North Carolina, Texas and California this summer?

Verify will be overseen by McClatchy and Washington Post veteran Jonathan Forsythe, who will serve as managing editor. He will hire 15 to 20 people on the Verify team, including producers and editors, digital journalists, motion graphics designers and product developers. Tegna has already hired two audience engagement specialists to lead Verify’s rollout on social media platforms.

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The fact-checking space is competitive. Media entrepreneur Steve Brill and former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz tackled the issue of misinformation and disinformation when they launched NewsGuard in 2018, which rates online news outlets on their reliability, to fight fake news. Fact-checking site Snopes has been around since the ‘90s. Additionally, The New York Times’ Daily Distortions vertical tracks false and misleading information, and The Washington Post’s Fact Checker was created in 2007 to hold mostly politicians accountable for false or misleading statements.

What differentiates Verify is that it focuses primarily on video, Ostrow said, though as the new team comes together they will also produce more articles. David Chavern, president and CEO of trade association News Media Alliance, noted that misinformation and disinformation is often spread in a visual format, so responding to such claims by sharing “a link to a 500-word article” may not be as effective as linking to “fact-checking content that is essentially native to social distribution,” such as a short video.

Verify began as a franchise that aired on Tegna’s local TV stations across the U.S. (Tegna now operates 64 stations in 51 markets and 49 newsrooms). Those stations’ corresponding websites, where the video segments are published alongside written articles, also reach a broad audience with 75 million visitors per month, according to the company.

The segments moved beyond TV to digital platforms in 2016, and Verify publishes new episodes to its Snapchat account weekly. It now has more than 160,000 subscribers and over 8 million unique viewers on the platform. More than 50% of the audience there is under the age of 24. “We are reaching an audience there that we don’t really reach on TV,” Ostrow said.

“Streaming and cable cord cutting is a real problem for local broadcasters,” said Chavern. “The question is, how do you expose your brand to young people who don’t have cable packages? … Having shareable social media-friendly news pieces that carry the local broadcast brand and exposes that brand to young people is really smart.”

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