Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Nate Silver Is Leaving the New York Times

Apparently, the New York Times and ESPN got involved in a bidding war for the services of boy genius Nate Silver.

As everyone knows, Silver’s blog, accessed through the Times site, drove massive amounts of traffic to the Old Gray Lady. Most especially since Silver’s statistical analysis of polling data was far more accurate than anyone else’s during the last election.

The polls were all over the lot; Silver was on the money.

Such success reaps rewards. And when it came to rewarding Silver, the Times was playing out of its league.

The market capitalization of the New York Times Co. is around $1.8 billion. It makes a profit of around $117 million. ESPN is owned by the Disney Company which earns over $5 billion against its market cap of $116 billion.

Sentiment aside, the Times was outgunned. Its honchos offered Silver as much as they could, but they could never match whatever ESPN was offering. Besides, ESPN is giving Silver an opportunity to practice his rough magic on the world of sports, something that the boy wizard loves. And since Disney also owns ABC, the new deal offers Silver far more media exposure.

Recently, the Times also lost a senior political correspondent, Jeff Zeleny to ABC News.

We are watching a competition between the old and new media. It seems inevitable that the old media will not be able to compete.

When the Times failed to hold on to Nate Silver it did not react with dignity and grace, wishing him good luck and godspeed.

Not at all, Times men and women reacted like sore losers. Apparently, they do not teach sportsmanship on West 41st St.

Yesterday, the Times’ Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan commented on the paper’s great loss.

She reported office gossip, to the effect that Silver and the Times were a poor fit. A newspaper that has done more than almost any other media outlet to make a fetish of diversity found that Nate Silver did not really belong in its wizened culture.

Sullivan outlines the situation:

Why did Nate Silver decide to leave The New York Times and accept an offer from ESPN?

That’s the cause of great speculation in media circles at the moment. As has been noted elsewhere, there’s no question that The Times made a big pitch to keep him and that the effort to do so involved those at the highest levels, including Jill Abramson, the executive editor, along with people on the business side. And there’s no doubt that decision-makers are disappointed.

After all, his star power was significant. And his ability to drive traffic – especially among young, non-newspaper readers with his FiveThirtyEight blog – was unmatched, and probably will remain so.

In his personal interactions with her Silver made a good impression:

In short, I found him a thoroughly decent person, generous with his time and more likely than not to take the high road in personal interactions.

After extolling Silver’s good character, Sullivan reports the insider trash talk that has followed Silver’s decision. She leaves the impression that a decent and generous person does not belong at the New York Times.

Evidently, Times men and women lack class:

I don’t think Nate Silver ever really fit into the Times culture and I think he was aware of that. He was, in a word, disruptive. Much like the Brad Pitt character in the movie “Moneyball” disrupted the old model of how to scout baseball players, Nate disrupted the traditional model of how to cover politics.

His entire probability-based way of looking at politics ran against the kind of political journalism that The Times specializes in: polling, the horse race, campaign coverage, analysis based on campaign-trail observation, and opinion writing, or “punditry,” as he put it, famously describing it as “fundamentally useless.” Of course, The Times is equally known for its in-depth and investigative reporting on politics.

His approach was to work against the narrative of politics – the “story” – and that made him always interesting to read. For me, both of these approaches have value and can live together just fine.

Silver does statistical probability. You may have noticed but statistics has become extremely important in the high tech world. If your children want to work at Google they should major in statistics.

So, Silver did not see politics in terms of the kind of narrative that Times reporters are peddling. He wanted to deal with facts and data, not the latest story line. He did not belong to the Tea Party, but he disrupted the Times culture because he dealt in facts and data.

Obviously, it isn’t the kind of journalism that the Times wants to present to the world. It would rather impose a narrative than analyze data.

One can only wonder how the Times newsroom explains the loss of Jeff Zeleny.


Sam L. said...

Clearly he was a bad fit...with those who believed in narrative and making it up as we go and only one valid point of view.

Glengarry said...

This is an excellent moment to switch jobs too. Silver is on top of the world at the moment, but, like a hot fund manager, it's difficult to maintain this position (what if his statistical model doesn't work so well in 2014?). He's smart enough to move on.