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How Argentine innovators created Chequeado and made it a global leader in fact-checking



*This story is part of a special project on Innovators in Latin American and Caribbean Journalism.


It was a sunny day in May when members of the Chequeado team carefully laid out a large board game in Plaza Moreno in La Plata, Argentina. The whole scene had an air of whimsy: dice that require two hands to hold, icons that stood 4 feet tall and circus performers that called passersby to try their hand at the fact-checking site’s version of “La Oca,” or the Game of the Goose.

But, there was something more important beneath the fun and games. The board told the story of the progress (or lack thereof) behind public works in the city three years after a historic flood. The findings were a result of journalistic investigations by Chequeado, some local media outlets and journalists and a hackathon that counted on participation from neighbors, engineers, programmers and high school students.

During the month, the same process was repeated in the plazas of four other cities around the country, focusing on local problems. The results of the traditional journalistic investigations were also published in local media.

The project, produced with support from the United Nations Fund for Democracy, was one of the site’s biggest so far, according to Chequeado project coordinator Olivia Sohr. The fact-checking site, now in its seventh year, is “always trying to think of new ways to present information so that it is more accessible and reaches the whole world,” she explained.

During events in five Argentine cities, Chequeado set up a board game to spread findings from recent local investigations. (Facebook)

This kind of innovative presentation and rigorous investigation is what has made Chequeado, the pioneering fact-checking site in Latin America, a reference and teacher for data verification in the region and around the world.

"Chequeado is a remarkable organization. They were among the first digital fact-checking projects around the world and can now be considered one of the global leaders," Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network, told the Knight Center. "They have continuously innovated their formats, channels and approaches in order to seek the greatest possible impact for the benefit of their cause: increasing accuracy in the public sphere."

The Argentine site, launched in October 2010, has become the great promoter of a journalistic gamble that has been rapidly gaining prominence and now counts almost 15 media from different Latin American countries among its ranks.

The Founding Fathers

The history of Chequeado’s birth is atypical. In large part because its three founders do not fit with the profile expected for this kind of journalistic project: they were not journalists, they didn’t come from the world of politics, and they did not have experience in the nonprofit sector.

They were three professionals –a physicist, Julio Aranovich; an economist, José Alberto Bekinschtein, and a chemist, Roberto Lugo– already veterans in their fields, over 60 years old and either about to retire or already there. All three had studied and lived for years outside of Argentina, but as director Laura Zommer explains it, they “were consumers with a need not satisfied by traditional media; informed citizens who identified a deficiency.”

Olivia Sohr, who was Chequeado’s first employee and is currently the site’s project director, told the Knight Center that Aranovich "lived a long time in the United States, where he made his professional career, and there he learned about FactCheck.org." When he returned to Argentina, he thought that an initiative like that "could work very well" in his country at a time –the year was 2009 and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was president– in which the political and communication environment was very rarefied. "According to what they read in Argentina," added Zommer, "they were told about two very different Argentinas." And that was not very acceptable for professionals who came from the scientific world.

The current Chequeado team (Courtesy)

Sohr, who received her education in sociology, came to the site after only brief incursions into journalism. Chequeado was interesting for two reasons: "the challenge of starting something from scratch," she explains, and "the idea of helping build a richer public debate" based on verifiable data and not only on opinions that are not contested. "That spirit of Chequeado - Sohr added - which was the strong idea of the founders, is that if we want a citizenship that participates actively in democracy, we need for them to be informed with basic data to be able to arm their opinions."

Sohr and Matías Di Santi –now the newsroom coordinator – created a closed blog in November 2009 "where we started to try out the first articles, to see how the tone came across, to show it to friends, to see whether it worked..." Sohr explained. Almost a year later, in October 2010, Chequeado was officially launched with a team of five people.

A little more than a year and a half after its public launch, the site went through a crucial episode for its future: the incorporation of a director with extensive journalistic experience.

Journalist and lawyer Laura Zommer has been the executive and journalistic director of Chequeado since May 2012, although she had been in contact with the project for quite some time before.

Zommer studied Communication and Law and has been teaching for two decades at the University of Buenos Aires on the right to information, with a focus on access to information and open data. At age 22, she started at newspaper La Nación, where she covered judicial issues, civil rights, corruption and transparency in politics, among other topics. After a temporary stint as chief of staff at the Ministry of Internal Security, she returned to La Nación and also started working as communications director at Argentine think tank CIPPEC. It was there that she learned about Chequeado and fell in love with the project.

Laura Zommer speaks at Latam Chequea, a regional fact-checking event sponsored by Chequeado. (Latam Chequea)

Despite having a small editorial team when Chequeado  launched publicly in October 2010, the founders kept Zommer informed of their progress to get her opinion and because there was a mutual conviction that "sooner or later I would go to work with them," Zommer explained.

According to Zommer, a former CIPPEC fundraising director that Chequeado hired as a consultant told them “that people support, in addition to good ideas, people who can carry them out." The problem with Chequeado was two-pronged: on the one hand, its promoters were already very veteran people; on the other, its journalistic team was too young, even if it was brilliant. To get money, they had to hire a director, "and that’s when I came in," Zommer said.

The bet had its economic risks, but Zommer explains that she accepted the challenge because "I was quite convinced that I wanted to return to journalism and none of the Argentine journalism spaces had the freedom that I expected to work with."

Since joining the company, Zommer has been in charge of executive management combined with journalistic coordination, hoping to be able to focus one day exclusively on journalism.

Her first goals: to make Chequeado independent from its founders, increase its impact and make it more professional.

The growth of Chequeado

Making Chequeado a more professional project involved many things, for example, establishing a rigorous work method and sharing it with users and other sites interested in data verification. Also, it involved better defining the type of checks to be carried out, improving the presentation formats or growing the team with professionals who had new skills.

The site was born with two very young journalists with little professional experience. As Sohr explains, "it was very hard to go out and say that what the president says is false." So from the beginning, to gain the credibility of the public, they applied great transparency to their work. They developed a method that, when Laura Zommer arrived, was put in writing and published on the site for everyone to see. "The method at Chequeado," Sohr added, "helped us to better organize what were already doing. If we followed all the steps, it would be difficult to make a big mistake. "

Now, that fact-checking method has been shared with sites around the world. It is also used by Chequeado at checkathons and by its teams of volunteers –students, or graduates of communications, economics, law or political science, who are trained by Chequeado and help with investigations.

The current Chequeado team consists of 16 professionals (right now there are 15, but there is an open search to hire a new editor). It is a young team. Three people are over 30 years old, but the rest are under 30 and Chequeado has been their first job in many cases. "We have a small team but it’s very efficient, very good," Zommer said.

Checks, daily articles or explanations are the central part of the site’s journalistic work. This is the central devotion of the newsroom, which consists of about six people, although most of the team collaborates in the daily work in one way or another. As explained on the site, “we check the statements of politicians, economists, businessmen, public figures media and other opinion-forming institutions, and classify them as ‘true’ to ‘false’ according to how consistent they are with the facts and data to which they refer.” Chequeado also works with outside journalists for certain projects from time to time.

“Whether it is through their GIFS, their wildly successful educational programs, or their live debate visualizations, Chequeado always has the user (the informed citizen) in mind,” said Mantzarlis, of the IFCN. “Besides that, they have been generous in supporting new fact-checking projects across Latin America.”

Investing in innovation

The site’s bet on finding new ways to inform the public is most apparent in its designation of an innovation director.

Pablo M. Fernández started working in media in 2002 at 20 years old, covering technology issues. After serving in leadership roles at magazines Information Technology and Apertura, working as homepage manager at La Nación, and completing a brief stint at venture ElMeme, Fernández joined Chequeado in 2015, first serving as coordinator of innovation and moving up to director a year later. He is, in practice, the number two of the Chequeado team.

One of the innovation team’s main challenges is to "think in terms of new formats" to present the information and reach a wider audience while "maintaining journalistic quality," as Fernández explained to the Knight Center. In addition, it also develops technological tools to make Chequeado content more attractive.

Chequeabot (Courtesy)

But one of the most innovative fields in which the Chequeado innovation team is working is artificial intelligence and the use of algorithms to automate tasks. "We are creating an automated checking system that will help us to check faster. It is our own development with open tools. It's called Chequeabot," Fernández explained. The name was chosen by the user community from several options proposed by the Chequeado team.

Each day this tool locates checkable phrases from about 30 media outlets and presents them at a weekly newsroom meeting, "as if it were a journalist," Fernández said. In this way, the Chequeado team can review more media sites, especially from areas of Argentina that were not previously covered. Chequeabot produces a ranking of the phrases that it considers most testable. "Generally speaking, it is correct," Fernández said, "but it also has an automatic learning component" since the editorial team can indicate whether it was right or wrong.

The technology that the Chequeado innovation team is developing also allows it to gain speed. "The robot," Fernández explained, "lets us know when it finds a similar phrase that we already checked. In real time. That is a great plus." Thus, the team can react with great speed and "that generates a lot of visits, a lot of engagement."

The Chequeado director is also convinced that they need to be as fast as possible. "The content generators are always going to be faster than us,” Zommer argues “because it is easier to invent than to inform." She added: "Just as they use technology for viralization, we have to be able to use artificial intelligence in all the checking processes where we can do without humans." Fernández adds that this "will allow humans to focus on the part of explaining and putting the data in context; things that artificial intelligence still doesn't do better than us."

Another function of the Chequeado bot, which is still in development, is to provide the best possible data on a current topic. For example, if the president of the country talks about poverty, the robot can present the journalist the best data available on that subject.

The team is very clear that this robot will be an important aid, but will never have the last word. That will always belong to the editorial team.

Fernández stressed that currently "nothing is being done in Spanish in this regard, and we believe that it can be something that other newsrooms can replicate." In English, this same project is being developed by the British media outlet Full Fact.

Chequeado works with media outlet UNO to share its checks through animated GIFs. (Chequeado)

Independent of the technological work based on algorithms, perhaps the clearest –or at least the most daring– example of innovations in format Chequeado has produced so far has been the presentation of results in the form of animated GIFs. This was a project made in collaboration with Argentine media outlet UNO, which is primarily aimed at millennials and is totally geared toward mobile phones and social networks. Zommer explains that "readership of the original articles that have GIFs increases because they circulate more.”

Fernández, explained that "it was quite revolutionary for Chequeado because we had been working in a very rigid manner." The practice of presenting a summary of the checks through animated illustrations "worked great," he said. It also worked because "a lot of people read us on social networks," and for a non-profit media outlet like Chequeado "it is very important to reach people through networks, even if they stay there."

Chequeado’s business model

Chequeado is part of the La Voz Pública Foundation for the verification of public discourse, a non-profit organization. The diversification of income channels is one of the keys to its business model. The site has four main sources of income.

The most important, by volume, is international cooperation, which in 2017 represented 59 percent of total revenue. According to Zommer, each year Chequeado counts on between nine and 13 grants or institutional donations. The main ones are from the Omidyar Network and Open Society Foundations, but they’ve also received aid from the embassies of New Zealand, Canada, the Netherlands, Great Britain and the United States, as well as other entities.

The second source of income is from companies (17 percent in 2017). As a strategic decision, Chequeado does not offer advertising on its pages. The help of companies comes through events such as "La Noche de Chequeado," the site’s main fundraising event that is held every year on the Monday before Journalist's Day (June 7). Companies pay to be present in order to expand brand recognition among journalists, academics and social leaders in attendance. Participation has increased every year (around 350 journalists attended in 2017). There are also companies that support particular projects of the Education or Chequeado Innovation programs.

Chequeado’s own activities are the third source of income (14 percent in 2017). Zommer believes that non-profit organizations such as Chequeado must "be able to monetize the social capital they generate." In its case, for example, they receive income for the publication of Chequeado content in other media or for the realization of online courses.

Finally, individual donations represent 10 percent of total income. They range from US $5 per month to US $10,000 per year, the latter of which is donated by the founder and CEO of e-commerce website Mercado Libre, Marcos Galperin. Currently, there are about 400 individual donors and the number increases year after year.

Noche de Chequeado (Facebook)

At the moment, although "there are years that are calmer than others," Zommer explained, "we are balanced." During those years, they managed to gain a surplus on a couple occasions.

The site receives approximately 300,000 monthly visits, but according to Zommer, its "audience exceeds one million people" when all the platforms and media in which its content is present are taken into account. "And surely," she adds, "among that million are all the politicians, academics and relevant journalists" of Argentina.

From the point of view of the audience, the main jump took place during the first presidential debate in Argentina in 2015. "Traffic grew 700 percent that year, and then our challenge was not to lose it," Zommer said.

But, one of the great –and most difficult– challenges that the Chequeado team currently faces is to measure its impact. It is not simply about knowing how many clicks a given story achieves, how a topic circulates through social networks, or how many times a particular work is cited in other media. That's important, but those responsible for the project want to go much further to "work on the things that really have the most impact" on society, as Olivia Sohr explained.

It’s a project the team is constantly working on, on several fronts. For example, they conduct surveys and focus groups with the audience. They also participate in the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) –Chequeado is part of its steering committee–, where common tools are developed that can be used by the different organizations that are part of the network "to make it cheaper for all and also to be able to later compare the impact achieved with these tools in different places."

Taking stock of the first seven years of the site, director Laura Zommer reflects on the site’s achievements. They’ve developed a financial model that allows quality journalism, they’ve established a brand associated with trust and they’ve created a very self-demanding team that works to hold people accountable.

But Zommer still sees room for improvement. They need to figure out how to better disseminate their research and to take a closer look at what Chequeado produces, not moving so quickly to the next project.

The excitement that’s felt among the Chequeado team regarding the possibilities offered by data verification, along with its permanent commitment to innovation, foretell a bright future for this project. Don’t take our word for it. Check it out for yourself.

 


The "Innovators in Journalism" series, made possible thanks to generous support from Open Society Foundations, covers digital news media trends and best practices in Latin America and the Caribbean. It expands upon our previous series and ebook, Innovative Journalism in Latin America, by looking at the people and teams leading innovative reporting, storytelling, distribution and financing initiatives in the region.

Other stories in the series include:



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