“Доверяй, но проверяй.” (“Doverai, no proverai.”)
“Trust, but verify.”
Back in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan used that Russian proverb so often in tricky disarmament talks with the Soviets that his counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, complained about it. But it worked.
Today, the phrase sounds almost quaint. In our polarized political and media climate, trust is vanishingly scarce, which makes the other half of the idiom — verify — even more relevant.
That’s one reason TEGNA announced a big bet at this week’s Interactive Advertising Bureau “NewFronts” presentation: expanding its fact-checking VERIFY franchise to reach across the country. “The idea is to take VERIFY national, evolving it beyond a product that lives primarily on television and our station websites, to being a national platform that exists on both TV and digital,” says the company’s digital czar, Adam Ostrow, “From a mission standpoint, it’s really to disprove misinformation and combat it. We think we’re in a position as TEGNA — working in local media, which is generally more trusted than national media — to be one of the companies that aggressively goes after that mission. I think it’s critically important.”
With this week’s announcement, TEGNA joins other station groups expanding beyond their owned-and-operated markets to launch national brands, like NBC’s LX and ABC’s Localish. VERIFY, which grew out of an employee brainstorming session at a company off-site six years ago, combines research and transparent sourcing to respond to timely questions in the news with a simple answer: true or false. The segments are produced by a central team as well as individual stations.
Last summer, we told you about a new VERIFY segment for the Snapchat Discover platform. That experiment succeeded, Ostrow says, now attracting more than 170,000 subscribers, many of them much younger than the typical TV news viewer, and still growing. “The success we had on Snapchat last year and continue to have today really gave us confidence that there was a big opportunity to take the brand national, beyond just TEGNA markets,” Ostrow says. Adding to that confidence, the “info-demic” of misinformation and disinformation around COVID and politics increased website traffic to the VERIFY content on station websites by more than 400 percent last year, the company says, and Ostrow says traffic from January to March of this year was up another 200 percent over Q1 of 2020.
Watch a VERIFY segment on COVID vaccines on the Snapchat Discover platform.
TEGNA is making a substantial investment in the national brand. Jonathan Forsythe joined the company in January from McClatchy to become VERIFY’s managing editor. Forsythe is building a team of 15-20 people including producer-editors, digital journalists, researchers, audience engagement experts, graphic artists, and dedicated on-air reporters. Most will be based in Washington, D.C., but others are sprinkled around the country. Two deputy editors, Lindsay Claiborn and Sara Roth, oversee video and digital production, respectively.
Forsythe’s team has already created or is now launching new VERIFY accounts on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, as well as a newsletter. There’s also a new Twitter handle: @VerifyThis. “One of the tenets of VERIFY has always been answering the audience’s questions,” Ostrow says. “So by expanding to all of these different social platforms, where so much of the misinformation spreads, it puts us closer to the sources of misinformation.”
Watch a promo for the new VERIFY social strategy.
There’s also a phone number to which viewers can text their questions. “We’ve been using texting in a variety of ways at the stations over the last year and a half or so,” Ostrow says. “That’s going to be a big part of it, too. People will be able to text in things that they’d like verified as well.” (In case you have a burning question that can’t wait until you finish reading this article, the number is 202-410-8808.)
Once the team is fully staffed, Forsythe hopes to produce an ambitious menu of five to seven original stories a day for the verifythis.com website, three or four of them with video, along with “social-only” products for the other platforms. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be the polished broadcast look, per se, and the Snapchat series is a perfect example,” Forsythe says. “I’m very excited to do a lot more experimenting with that type of storytelling across social platforms.”
That said, Ostrow and Forsythe aren’t neglecting VERIFY’s broadcast roots at the TEGNA stations. The team intends to offer “a couple of stories” each day for stations to use in their newscasts if they choose to — but it’s also providing training and a style guide to encourage more of the company’s stations to produce their own versions of the franchise. Each station even has (or will soon have) a “VERIFY champion.” “As part of this expanded push, we are working even more closely with the stations and certainly hoping to see more stations integrate VERIFY into their local storytelling,” Ostrow says. “We want stations to be much more engaged. We want them to run the national stuff when they find those stories interesting for their audience. But we also want them to be applying that format to local stories as much as possible. I think that’s the best-case scenario.”
Watch a VERIFY broadcast segment on President Biden’s infrastructure plan.
In that best-case scenario, stations will also contribute their reporting to the new national effort. “We are getting good stories that are being produced by some of those stations that we are looking to promote across our new digital channels that we’ve just launched,” Forsythe says. “And that is the sort of symbiotic two-way street that we see — this national brand being mutually beneficial for the stations as well.”
How will TEGNA measure success? Launch, but verify. That means analyzing audience research and metrics — much easier to measure on digital platforms — and noting the degree to which stations adopt and adapt the mission. Over time, Ostrow and Forsythe also hope to create more long-form VERIFY programming for streaming platforms, perhaps building on the Verify Road Trip concept pioneered by Dallas station WFAA. (Reporter David Schechter’s episode on climate change won a duPont-Columbia award this year.)
And there’s a less tangible but even more ambitious goal: to become a go-to national resource for anyone seeking accurate information across a broad range of issues. “I think it’s about being much more present on the platform for misinformation,” Forsythe says. “It’s about having our content be available wherever somebody has a question that they want verified or confirmed.”
“With ‘VerifyThis’ as the social handle, that’s actually kind of intentional,” Ostrow says. “The brand is still VERIFY. But aspirationally, we’d love for ‘VerifyThis’ to be in the vernacular. If people think, when they see something on Twitter or Facebook or wherever, ‘Oh, I’m going to tag VerifyThis and have them look into it,’ that’s the type of ubiquity we hope to achieve.”