Bill Adair: Creating New Forms of Journalism

When Bill Adair launched the PolitiFact website at The Tampa Bay Times in 2007, he wanted to provide a different kind of campaign coverage through fact-checking.  With its Truth-O-Meter rating scale, ranging  from “True” to “Pants on Fire” for the  most ridiculous falsehoods, the site became the go-to source for evaluating political promises and claims. The site was such a success that it won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009.   

Adair joined the Sanford School faculty this year as the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy. In addition to running PolitiFact, he had been the Washington Bureau chief for the Times since 2004 and had covered the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court as well as general political news.  

“With PolitiFact, I wanted to take the facts and present the information in a lively way.  A lot of public policy and government reporting uses an ‘eat-your-veggies’ approach,” he said.  

At Sanford, he hopes to create new digital tools for reporting to counteract shrinking numbers of journalists covering all levels of government. Adair is the new director of The Reporter’s Lab at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, which had been created by the previous Knight Professor, Sarah Cohen.

“I want to build on what Sarah did,” he said. Under Cohen, the lab developed software such as Timeflow, to help reporters organize data on long-term stories, and Video Notebook, which helps reporters match digital content such as video, blog posts and tweets.  

“My first goal with the lab is to talk with news organizations, find out what they need (and) what new tools would help so we can begin building them,” he said.  He is looking for new ways for journalists to acquire information, analyze large quantities of data and present their stories quickly through well designed elements. Journalists need to rethink the story form for the digital age, he says. 

These tools should be useful for local reporters as well as national ones, to help cover the county courthouse and the state legislature.  He sees a “hunger for information on the North Carolina legislature,” and is looking for ways to use the data of the General Assembly itself to help journalists report in more detail about what government is doing.   

He wants to explore new forms of journalism through new devices, perhaps similar to the smart phone app “Settle It! PolitiFact’s Argument Ender,” which Adair developed with funding from the Knight Foundation. There has been little research on what works for mobile devices and what could be done to target apps to readers’ needs, he said an interview with The Nieman Journalism Lab.

This fall, Adair is teaching two classes: News as a Moral Battleground; and a new course, The Press and the Presidency in the New Media Age. 

In the Moral Battleground class, he is exploring sourcing and transparency, plagiarism and fabrications and how a news organization allows that to happen, as well as how ambition and dysfunction in management shape coverage.  Frank Swoboda, former business editor of The Washington Post and White House correspondent during the Johnson administration, was among the guest speakers. Adair is havingthe students compile a database of instances where a news outlet has used an unnamed source and use the database for assignments, for what he calls “crowd-sourced” teaching.

For the Press and Presidency class, Adair is covering the evolution of the symbiotic relationship of the press and the presidency. These days, the White House has its own 24/7 messaging system and “does not need the media as much.” The course will draw on his own experience as a Washington reporter as well as on guest speakers. Invited speakers include Anita Kumar, White House reporter for the McClatchy Newspapers, former White House communications director Anita Dunn and Scott McClellan, former White House press secretary. He wants to show students a “blend of government and the press, a bit about how DC and the media work,” he said.

Adair remains a contributing editor for PolitiFact, which has expanded on a franchise model into several states and abroad, most recently to Australia. He is looking forward to working with students on research projects in media and with the student-run Duke Chronicle.

“Being a Knight Professor is one of the best jobs in academia and journalism,” he said. “It has both prestige and freedom. It’s a dream job,” he said.