Nate Silver is leaving the New York Times for ESPN and ABC News, where he can simultaneously pursue his interest in both sports and politics (he began his career as a baseball analyst, using some of the same mathematical techniques he later used for politics). And the “public editor” of the NYT, Margaret Sullivan, sets fire to the bridge:
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.
Right. So they tried like hell to make sure he stuck around. And now that he’s chosen another suitor, it’s time to trash him:
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…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 Times tried very hard to give him a lot of editorial help and a great platform. It bent over backward to do so, and this, too, disturbed some staff members. It was about to devote a significant number of staff positions to beefing up his presence into its own mini-department.
Clearly this is not going to cause any navel-gazing among the old guard media, especially the old gray lady. The “kind of political journalism the Times specializes in” is, in fact, useless. It has been for a long time. It has turned campaign reporters into little more than stenographers, unless they get a whiff of a sensationalist scandal that can make them famous for a brief moment. They dutifully report the latest bit of bullshit put out by campaign press secretaries on the bus as if it had even the most remote relationship with the truth.
The kind of journalism that Silver has essentially invented is an important one. He’s given the public a new set of tools for understanding polling data by applying rigorous mathematical analysis to them. Doing this is a real challenge to major media outlets like the Times, which loves to trumpet the results of the polls they commission as though they were the gold standard.