As some of you know, I was a casualty of Nate Silver’s deal to operate his FiveThirtyEight blog at the New York Times back in 2011 (right before the new site “went live,” I was informed by Times management that my associations were too partisan for their taste; I suspected immediately that they just viewed everyone on the 538 “team” other than Nate as unnecessary baggage). So naturally if not fairly, I am deriving some grim satisfaction from the news that the Times has lost Nate to ESPN, where he will engage in the kind of sports analysis that first made him famous, along, quite probably, with a return to intensive political coverage for the World Wide Leader’s corporate partner ABC when the time is ripe.
I haven’t talked to Nate in quite some time, so don’t really know what all went into his thinking in making this move. But the Times’ Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, dropped some pretty clear hints today:
* 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.”
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.
* A number of traditional and well-respected Times journalists disliked his work. The first time I wrote about him I suggested that print readers should have the same access to his writing that online readers were getting. I was surprised to quickly hear by e-mail from three high-profile Times political journalists, criticizing him and his work. They were also tough on me for seeming to endorse what he wrote, since I was suggesting that it get more visibility.
The Moneyball analogy is apt, since Nate, like Billy Beane, was a walking, breathing existential threat to the “traditionalists” of his craft, and also had a knack for being visibly and offensively correct when he differed with them. He’s changed political journalism even if he (temporarily) leaves it. I hope those at the Times who disliked him don’t get too comfortable.
UPDATE: Since Nate Silver’s focus on objective data and fundamentals is central to his approach to political journalism, and antithetical to the “narrative”-based style of Politico, it’s richly ironic that Mike Allen has penned a “behind-the-curtain” account of the dynamics that led to Nate’s defection.
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